Virtual Instruction Just the First Challenge of the COVID-19 Outbreak for Law Schools Grading practices, hiring and the future of the bar exam are just a few of the areas impacted by the virus outbreak.
After a two-week pause, law students at Washington and Lee University School of Law restarted their legal education this week in a virtual format. While the break gave faculty and students alike a chance to prepare for the transition to online learning, it also gave the Law School time to grapple with emerging issues brought to the foreground by the viral outbreak.
One of the first questions to arise at W&L Law, and at educational institutions across the globe, was how grading for the current semester would be affected by the massive social and economic upheaval in the lives of students. In a decision that tracked the mainstream approach to this issue, the W&L Law faculty voted to assess all spring courses on a credit/no credit basis. In his message to students announcing this change, Dean Brant Hellwig noted the significant challenges students are experiencing as the virus spreads.
“Some of our students have children and are facing unexpected full-time childcare responsibilities resulting from school closures,” Hellwig explained. “Not all of our students have access to appropriate technology, reliable internet, or environments that will allow them to focus with the intensity required to perform well in their coursework…. It is therefore clear to the faculty that the relatively level playing field necessary to support a system of determining letter grades around a curved mean – whether on a mandatory or optional basis – no longer exists.”
Hellwig acknowledged that no solution to the grading question was without meaningful downsides, noting that the credit/no credit approach removed the ability of students to demonstrate improved academic performance, which could be helpful with employment prospects. Legal employers are also dealing with this dramatic disruption, and many have signaled that pass/fail grading will not be held against students during the hiring process. There is also discussion of delaying on-campus interview programs until the spring of 2021 to give students another semester to receive traditional grades for their transcripts.
“We ultimately concluded that the mandatory credit/no credit approach was in the best interest of our students and our community. This approach also appeals to our sense of the common good,” said Hellwig.
For third-year law students, another looming issue is the bar exam, traditionally taken in July. The National Conference of Bar Examiners, which develops and produces multistate and uniform bar exam materials in use in many states, is currently planning for a fall administration and will make a decision in early May about whether they will supply materials for the July administration. There is also a nationwide discussion of granting “diploma privilege” to students so they can begin practicing law before taking the exam.
The board of examiners in each state ultimately will decide when to administer their bar exam. Last year, W&L Law students took the bar exam in 23 different jurisdictions, with a national passage rate of over 90%. Regardless of when jurisdictions decide to administer their exam, W&L Law is committed to assisting students in preparing for success on the bar exam.
Assistant Dean of Law Students Affairs Trenya Mason is a member of the University’s Coronavirus task force, and has been working closely with student leaders and others to help students prepare for the transition to virtual instruction and to manage the strain of this unexpected disruption in their lives.
“It is an honor to be part of the task force to consider all the many ways the impact of COVID-19 would have on our community,” said Mason. “In the midst of working out all of the logistics during this time, it is extremely important for our students (and really every member of our community) to be informed about the various resources available through the University, locally, and nationally, continue to finds ways to take care of their well-being, and to find meaningful ways to stay connected as a community.”
Student Bar Association President Roy Abernathy has been in regular contact with the study body through social media and email, and he notes that the first moments of class meetings in Zoom have proved to be good opportunities for classmates to check in with each other.
“I have witnessed our community come together over the past week in remarkable ways,” said Abernathy. “As students go on daily walks, at an acceptable distance, they are able to say hello and engage with faces they haven’t seen in weeks. I have seen law students post on Facebook about concern for our neighbors in Lexington. Meg Prieto, a fellow 3L, just dropped brownies on my door to share with my roommates.”
“We are learning to learn and to live, in a time of crisis, and I remain proud to be a member of the W&L Law community,” Abernathy added.