Concerns over the spread of the coronavirus are beginning to upend law school operations, with more disruptions likely in the coming week.

At least six law schools in New York, California and Washington State have now canceled in-person classes or closed outright amid worries that students and employees could be exposed to COVID-19.

The University of Washington on March 6 became the first to announce a universitywide closure and move to online classes. That change—which includes the law school—takes effect today and lasts until the start of the spring quarter March 30. One first-year law student is in a self-quarantine after possible exposure to the coronavirus, and Seattle has emerged as a center of the virus’ spread in the U.S.

The following day, officials at Stanford University announced that its campus would move all classes online until March 30, when the spring quarter begins. A faculty member who works in a medical clinic tested positive for the virus.

Columbia University on Sunday announced that classes are suspended today and Tuesday to allow faculty to prepare to shift classes online for the remainder of the week and encouraged the cancellation of all “non-essential” events.

On Monday, Fordham University suspended in-person classes through Tuesday and said they would resume Wednesday online through at least March 27. Law dean Mathew Diller told students in a message Monday that there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the university. All on-campus law school events are cancelled through March 29.

“We will be working to maintain as many services as possible – food service, career services, student affairs–but we anticipate that on-campus operations will be curtailed,” Diller wrote. “We will be working to provide services remotely. The dorms will remain open.”

Hours later, the University of California Berkeley announced that it would suspend all in-person classes beginning on Tuesday, and shift to online classes through March 26. Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote to students saying the shift applies to the law school as well and that all in-person campus events are cancelled during that period, though the law library will remain open.

“I very much appreciate everyone’s patience as we deal with this uncertain and fast moving situation,” he wrote. “This is a time when I feel so fortunate to be part of such a warm and supportive community.”

And Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law on Sunday canceled in-person classes through at least March 20, saying  that classes will be held online starting Tuesday. University administrators said that a student reported flu-like symptoms Sunday and had attended an off-campus conference frequented by a person who later tested positive for the virus.

New York Law School was the first law school to shut down due to the coronavirus. The campus closed for disinfecting March 4-6 after a law student had contact with an attorney who tested positive. The student later tested negative for the virus. Dean Anthony Crowell said Monday that law schools must remain vigilant and maintain “supportive and non-judgmental structures” to enable the quick reporting of possible coronavirus exposures.

“While our student thankfully tested negative, the scenario planning we undertook two weeks ago proved invaluable in guiding our decision to close, clean, and keep the community informed while we awaited test results,” Crowell said. “We sent mass communications on our status at regular intervals, and we hosted several large group conference calls with all faculty and staff, and maintained regular contact with student leaders. This helped us maintain trust and instill confidence in and accountability for our approach.”

The timing of the in-person class cancellations at Stanford and Washington come with pros and cons for the law schools. Each operates on a quarter system, meaning that regularly scheduled classes were nearly at an end. Today is the final day of classes before the semester’s reading period and final exams at Stanford Law. And Wednesday is the final day of classes for law students at Washington heading into exams.

However, the two law schools must now deliver online final exams, since students can’t come to campus for testing. Washington law Dean Mario Barnes wrote to students March 6 with news that the faculty are working out how exams will be given and will inform students as soon as possible.

“Our goal is to make sure students’ academic work is recognized fairly and that any disruption does not disadvantage your future academic progress,” Barnes wrote. “We plan to resume normal class operations when spring quarter begins March 30, pending public health guidance.”

Meanwhile, law professors on Twitter and on blogs have increasingly been discussing online teaching, and those with experience in distance education have been sharing advice.

Bridget Crawford, a professor at Pace University Elisabeth Haub School of Law, created 24-minute overview video about translating legal education online in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The video covers everything from the difference between synchronous and asynchronous formats to how to maintain contact with students and be available to them. She has been teaching courses on tax, wills and estates for 11 years. She recommend recording lectures in shorter segments for easier editing and building in opportunities for student feedback, such as quizzes.

“Teaching online is not necessarily harder; it’s just different,” Crawford advises in the video.

On Twitter, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professor Dan Rodriguez advised using breakout rooms in online classes with smaller groups of students, and to use the screen-share function to give students visuals of the documents being discussed in real-time.


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