Back to (Law) School, COVID-Style

The Labour Day weekend typically finds professors feeling melancholy: the four months of our summer term, which we use primarily for research and writing, attending conferences, and graduate supervision, are again drawing to a close. We know that the next eight months will be focused on the equally important work of teaching, academic planning and governance, so our next opportunity to think deeply about our scholarship is a long way away.

Yet, since many of us are unabashed nerds, we are perpetually excited about the beginning of a new school year, replete with ambitious plans for our courses and keen to engage with a new crop of eager students. This is a large part of why we love our jobs as much as we do.

It goes without saying that the summer of 2020 was completely different. We made a rapid transition to virtual course delivery in March, and ensured that students were able to complete the year, write exams remotely, and graduate on time. Before that work was even complete, we were faced with the dilemma of how we would deliver our courses in the fall. At the time, it was not clear how long the pandemic and its related restrictions would last, so we were planning based on the best estimations of public health authorities and senior university leaders.

Some universities declared early that the fall semester would be delivered through virtual means. Professors at those schools had considerable work ahead of them. Not only are most Canadian law professors inexperienced in teaching courses online, we are also inexperienced in taking courses online. Unlike with classroom teaching, we had almost no personal frame of reference to determine what good online pedagogy looked like, or effective professors of our own to emulate.

Professors building online courses for the first time accordingly participated in workshops from our respective campus teaching and learning centres, experimented with various online platforms, and shared ideas with colleagues. Some of us were fortunate to have colleagues with online teaching experience who generously shared their wisdom with us, and some professors developed national networks for sharing online resources in their fields.

Beyond course work, the law schools whose programs are being delivered online had the equally if not more challenging task of trying to build a sense of community by virtual means. Thinking back to our own first weeks at law school, I know that many of us would have felt isolated and confused without the personal guidance of our professors and the support of our classmates. In this field, full credit has to go to the Orientation team at the University of Ottawa Common Law Section, Professors Kyle Kirkup and Anne Levesque, who have been releasing podcasts all summer to acclimate their incoming students. And I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight University of Calgary Professor Howie Kisloweicz’s original song for the Class of 2023, “Weird Lex, But Ok.”

At Western, our President decided early that we would not be moving the fall term fully online; rather, our students were to be given the opportunity for “meaningful” in-person learning experiences. All Faculties were then tasked with deciding how we could deliver those experiences in light of the public health restrictions we faced.

In the law school, for example, physical distancing guidelines meant that our largest classroom, which normally sits the entire first-year class of 185 students, would be limited to about 25. Our next largest classroom would seat less than 15. While we were able to secure an extra classroom in another Faculty, the Ontario government has limited indoor gatherings to 50 people. It was clear that nothing resembling our normal timetable was possible.

We made the difficult decision to limit in-person classes to first-year students. We know that students often find it challenging to make the transition to studying law, and we felt it was important for them to build supportive networks with their professors and classmates. Western Law’s small group program is also ideally suited to cohort-based learning, so with some long teaching days and the extreme good-naturedness of faculty, we were able to assemble a first-year timetable where five of our six compulsory courses will be taught in-person.

Understandably, though, this left our upper-year students feeling disappointed and concerned that they would lose the sense of community and classroom engagement that they had come to expect. This was probably the hardest thing for me to deal with as a Dean. I love the energy that our students bring to the law school; they are the ones who bring things to life with clubs, guest speakers, intramurals, trivia nights, talent shows, and community service. It nearly breaks my heart to know that our students will not be organizing these physical and very social events on a regular basis. And while we’ve all gotten used to meeting with others on Zoom, I am sad that we will be missing out on the buzz of student life in so many ways.

However, this decision having been made, we turned our attention to the daunting task of preparing the building for the in-person teaching of our first-year class. This task was made more difficult by the seemingly constant changes in public health guidelines – plans were made only to be scrapped. For instance, we had ordered 200 face shields for our faculty, staff, and first-year students, only to learn in mid-August that they were no longer considered sufficient protection. Students are now required to wear face-coverings at all times when indoors, and faculty will teach from within plexiglass “penalty boxes” that at least permit them to remove their masks when lecturing.

As a university, Western has gone to great lengths to ensure that our buildings can accommodate physical distancing, that students have appropriate study spaces, that there are ample COVID-19 testing facilities, and that amenities like food services, housing, and the recreation centre will be operational. For a large institution, this is a herculean effort, and has required the cooperation of every member of the campus community. And in the backs of our minds, many of us have worried that all this effort will be for naught if a second wave hits.

Indeed, as I write this at the end of Orientation Week, Ontario’s daily new COVID cases have crept above 200, with the looming opening of public schools threatening to drive these numbers higher. While London has so far steered clear of major outbreaks, we are all holding our breath to see how the influx of university and college students will change that situation.

But even if our re-opening ends up being reversed in the near future, I know that all of our planning will someday be useful – educational institutions can ill-afford to stay closed indefinitely, and will eventually need to grapple with the challenges of teaching in a pandemic.

And there have been many silver linings, too.

My faculty and staff colleagues have shown incredible creativity, resilience, and teamwork during the summer. The Canadian law deans have been meeting more frequently to share our experiences, frustrations, and best practices. We have been communicating regularly with our law societies about student recruitment and licensing processes. Our clinics have developed ways to serve their clients remotely, which will ultimately improve access to justice. And our faculty have been finding new ways to engage with students, developing new methods of assessment, and (dare I say) having fun redesigning their courses.

I am hopeful that these positive consequences will continue in our post-pandemic life, just like bread-baking, bike-riding, and dog-fostering.

I’ll close by extending my best wishes to all those delivering or receiving a legal education this year. Whether this is taking place in-person or remotely, it looks vastly different from the legal education we are used to in Canada. When this is all over, I hope that we will have a new appreciation for how fortunate we are to be able to conduct thought-provoking research and discussion on critical and emerging issues in law, and to participate in the very human project of higher education.

Erika Chamberlain, Dean
Faculty of Law, University of Western Ontario

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