By: Abigail Perdue
As communities across the country brace for the potential impact of COVID-19, law professors must contemplate how to handle COVID-19-related course interruption. This kind of pandemic planning is particularly pressing for professors in small, experiential courses because they are likelier to involve collaborative group work and lengthy one-on-one conferences between professors and students. Given our current understanding of how COVID-19 likely spreads, such activities may pose a greater risk of COVID transmission unless certain precautions are taken.
Although our understanding of COVID-19 is rapidly evolving, the latest information appears to indicate that the virus spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes. An infected person’s cough or sneeze expels droplets carrying COVID-19, which may land on another person’s nose or mouth or on a nearby inanimate object like a computer mouse or door handle. Unless and until those objects are properly disinfected, COVID-19 can survive on them for an unknown length of time. And that is exactly how long those objects will be a potential source of contagion unless disinfected. Anyone who touches the object and then touches their nose or face risks becoming infected.
In light of these concerns, law professors may wish to contemplate small measures they can take to keep their law school communities healthy and to limit potential course interruption caused by COVID-19. Below is a non-exhaustive list of ideas:
- Develop a COVID Contingency Plan: Devise a thoughtful contingency plan should classes be suspended. For example, you might let students know that in the event classes are suspended, you will hold their upcoming oral arguments at the same date with a slightly modified time, as noted below. However, you will serve as the judge alone, and arguments will be conducted using Zoom™. Instruct them how to use Zoom™ and host a class using Zoom in which you conduct short mock oral arguments with your students. This will enable them to feel comfortable with the technology before the big day. If the existing schedule had the oral argument being held from 4-5pm on March 30, that will now be changed to 4-4:30pm for Plaintiff’s counsel and 4:30-5pm for Defendant’s counsel. (Although I will advise students that in the real world, they would be expected to wear business formal attire for a videoconference with a court or client, I will not require students to dress in formal business attire for their oral argument simply because students who traveled home and were then told not to return to campus may not have taken business formal attire with them.) Having a clear contingency plan in place will ease students’ anxiety as well as minimize any disruption. Likewise, begin contemplating now whether and how to permit students to self-administer your law school exam from home should doing so become necessary.
- Broaden your sick leave policy and apply it flexibly: The CDC advises anyone who is sick to stay home. Some universities have advised that anyone who has traveled to an area where COVID-19 infection is prevalent, such as Washington, may be asked to self-quarantine for two weeks from the return date of the trip. Yet restrictive absence policies may discourage people from staying home when they are sick or placing themselves into self-quarantine. To avoid this, review your sick leave policy and revise it as necessary. Assure students via email and in-class announcements that no one will be penalized for any illness-related absence, no matter the duration. Instruct students to simply email you to alert you of an illness-related absence, which will definitely be excused. Emphasize that no doctor’s note is required. (This is important because concern has been expressed regarding health care providers potentially becoming inundated with mild COVID-19 cases that could be treated at home.) Emphasize that students will not be penalized for illness-related absences and that they may submit any work for that day online after they recover. To the extent your policy requires students to attend a certain number of classes or risk an incomplete, speak with your Academic Dean regarding whether that policy can be suspended in light of COVID-19, particularly for a student who has already had several absences. Clarify that your absence policy includes conferences with you or the TA as well as any other class-related events. Like professors, law school administrators and student organizations should rethink requiring attendance at school events, particularly at large gatherings.
- Disinfect teaching equipment after each use: Given the presumed method of COVID-19 transmission, consider using Lysol™ or a disinfectant wipe to clean communal teaching technology, such as the slide clicker or computer screen, after each use. To encourage this, law schools may wish to consider providing appropriate wipes in each classroom. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds after using any communal teaching tools as well as the faculty lounge coffeemaker, door handles, bathroom sinks, water fountains, etc. Law schools should perhaps consider following the example of some K-12 schools and increasing the frequency that door knobs, sinks, drinking fountains, and other common sources of infection on campus are thoroughly disinfected.
- Provide sanitizer in your office: When soap and water are not readily available as in your office, use an alcohol-based sanitizer with least 60% alcohol. Provide hand sanitizer in your office and encourage visitors to use it at the beginning and end of their meeting with you. Consider quickly disinfecting your office with a few sprays of Lysol™ at the end of each day. Keep a box of tissues on your desk for yourself and for visitors.
- Hold virtual office hours and meetings: The CDC recommends avoiding close contact with people who are sick or who have been around others who are sick, whether due to travel or otherwise. But what happens when a student really needs to speak with you because of a pressing job-related issue or time-sensitive deadline like registration? In those situations, consider holding virtual office hours. Chat with students via WebEx, Zoom, or by telephone. Rather than hosting in-person office hours, let students know set times during the week, such as 2-4pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when you will be logged onto your work email and instant message (IM) account. During this time, students can reach out to you with questions via email or IM, and you’ll be able to quickly respond. In fact, IM conversations are not much different than in-person ones as they occur in real time.
- Record or live stream classes and events: To encourage students to stay home when sick, arrange with your IT department to record or live stream your classes and any school events, such as guest speakers. You can easily provide absent students with the link to the recording shortly after the class or event. They won’t have to trust another student’s notes; they can take their own. If you advise an organization that is hosting a major event, ask the speakers and IT if you can live stream the event so that students can watch it from home. Invite guest speakers to join faculty development talks or your class via WebEx or Zoom. If you are concerned that your own illness might prevent you from teaching class, then pre-record your planned lectures via a video platform like Voicethread™. Voicethread™ will show your slide on the screen and play your embedded audio. It is free and easy to use. You can create a presentation from the comfort of your sofa! Alternatively, arrange with IT to videotape a series of pre-recorded lectures, which you can share with your students in the event that you are unable to teach. In fact, a growing number of schools, including Yale, Harvard, UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, UVA, UCLA, Georgetown, WVU, Ohio State, and many more have been proactive, moving all classes online so that students need not return to campus at all after spring break.
- Provide audio feedback in lieu of an in-person conference: In lieu of in-person TA and professor conferences, use free programs like Kaizena™ to record audio feedback comments about drafts. Students can listen to your comments over and over. Kaizena™ also allows you to embed pre-written comments and lessons as well as text comments. It can be just as valuable as live, face-to-face feedback.
- Replace in-person collaborative work with virtual collaboration: In Teaching Technophiles to Collaborate, I share how to use free technology platforms like Google Docs™ to replace in-person collaborative assessments, such as a group presentation, with virtual collaboration. For example, if you had previously asked students to work in groups of five to develop a list of potential oral argument questions, tweak the exercise so that the students must create a Google Doc to facilitate their collaboration. Because this kind of collaboration is increasingly commonplace in law firms where associates from different offices around the globe must team up to complete a project, virtual collaboration is both pragmatic and pedagogically sound, particularly during a pandemic. Indeed, some companies are already advising employees that such telework may become necessary. In addition, as classroom space permits, allow students to move out of their assigned seats so that they can spread themselves further apart in the classroom. Replace exercises, such as the in-person peer exchange of drafts, with safer, virtual counterparts.
- Get Creative: In a recent presentation, Professor Jennifer Romig shared how a serendipitous snow day prompted her to develop an interesting online exercise that would be just as valuable during a COVID-related course interruption. Use a course interruption as an opportunity to try something new.
- Teach Critical Information Literacy: As COVID-19 rumors swirl across the Internet, use this as a teaching moment to demonstrate critical information literacy. Ask students to discuss the kinds of indicators that suggest which sources reporting on COVID-19 are the most credible and why. Invite health law experts at your school in conjunction with Student Health to live stream a presentation about COVID-19 to address questions and concerns from the community.
- Be sensitive to stigma: Stigma is a disease in and of itself. Fear often provokes prejudice, so naturally, prejudice can spike during a potential pandemic. Be alert to whether students, particularly those in at-risk populations, seem isolated or marginalized by other students. Feeling stigmatized can be psychologically damaging, and stigmatized students should likely be referred to law school resources like the Counseling Center or Dean of Students to receive special care attention as necessary. Avoid staring, mocking, or engaging in other stigmatizing, judgmental behaviors if students or colleagues opt to wear a face mask or gloves as an added safety precaution. Their health is their business, and it is not for you to judge the measures they take to protect it.
- Practice what you Preach: Stay home when you’re sick. Provide a model for your students. Replace hand shakes with non-physical, verbal greetings (or perhaps the emerging trend of the “COVID-19 elbow bump.”) Remember that just because you are not at high risk for developing any serious COVID-related complications, your students and colleagues (or members of their families) may be. So be a calm, collegial, and responsible community member.
- Stay current with CDC updates: As information evolves, so must our response, both individually and institutionally. Stay apprised of CDC updates and adapt your course plans and policies accordingly.
As with most things, the key to not getting scared is being prepared. Let’s hope that these measures do not become necessary and that we all stay healthy!
 The author has no medical training. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of her employer.
 The latter scenario currently appears to be a less common path of transmission.