Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Can Law Schools Safely Teach On Campus In Fall 2020?

Ilya Somin (George Mason), Some Tentative Suggestions for Safely Restarting In-Person Teaching at Universities:

CoronavirusUniversities around the country are pondering the question of whether and how to resume in-person teaching during the upcoming fall 2020 semester. In-person instruction has major advantages over the online version many of us have experienced this spring. But it would be foolish and irresponsible to ignore the risks of spreading Covid-19. I don't have anything approaching a comprehensive solution to this dilemma. But in this post, I offer some tentative suggestions for how in-person teaching can be restarted, while minimizing risk, while also avoiding creating an unbearable dystopian on-campus environment. ...

The proposals I offer rely on three key ideas. First, the advantages of in-person education are far greater for some types of classes than for others. Second, there are ways to protect faculty and students who face especially high risks without moving to a fully on-line model for the classes they teach or take. ...

I. Exploiting Variation in the Relative Advantages of In-Person Teaching

[S]chools can potentially keep smaller classes online, while reserving limited classroom space for bigger ones. This may seem like the exact opposite of what might be useful for maintaining social distance. Obviously it is easier for a small group to do so than big one. But by moving smaller classes online, schools can free up a lot of classroom space that would otherwise be used for them. That in turn can allow them to split up larger courses between two rooms.

The professor can be in one room, along with however many students can fit in there with while maintaining social distancing. The remaining students can be in the second room. They can watch the professor (and other students) on a large TV monitor set up at the front. The professor can in turn see the students in the second room on a monitor set up in her room.

The obvious objection to this setup is that it risks replicating the flaws of online teaching. But initial appearances are deceptive. The professor's attention in this scenario is divided in only two directions: the room she is in and the one she can see only through the monitor. That's far easier to manage than having to look at (and scroll through) several dozen different faces on Zoom or Webex. Moreover, the students in both rooms can benefit from easier interaction with their classmates in the same room, which can also make it easier to stay focused. Furthermore, the classrooms  won't have the distractions that often make it hard to focus on classes at home.

Moreover, students can rotate between the two classrooms, so that those who are in the monitor room on Day 1 of class can be in the professor's room on Day 2, and vice versa. That enables everyone to get regular in-person time with the professor—including, where needed,—time to talk before or after class, so long as everyone stays the requisite six feet from each other. ...

II. Protecting High-Risk Faculty and Students.

By now, everyone who follows these issues knows that Covid 19 poses far greater risks to some categories of people than others. In particular, it is far more dangerous for those over 60 years old,  and people with certain types of preexisting health conditions. This creates a difficult dilemma for universities, since many faculty are over sixty, and there are others on campus (both faculty and students) who have health conditions that make them unusually vulnerable.

The obvious solution for such cases is to confine them to purely online instruction. But there may be other options that preserve some of the benefits of the in-person version. For example, high-risk faculty can potentially teach from home, but the students in their class can be gathered in a single room at the university (or two rooms, if need be), as described above. That makes it easier for the professor to see and keep track of all the students at once. The students, in turn can see the professor on a monitor in their room, and can also interact directly with each other. ...

Like many other industries, higher education will face difficult choices so long as the Coronavirus continues to be a serious threat. But, given the severe limitations of online teaching, we should at least consider options for resuming in-person instruction, particularly for those courses that can benefit from it the most.

The suggestions I offer will not "solve" all the problems universities face, or even come close to it. But I hope they can at least be useful contributions to the ongoing discussion of these issues.

Josh Blackman (South Texas), A Typical University Day in the COVID-19 Era:

I am generally skeptical of efforts to resume classes on campus in the fall. I don't think Universities can expect students to strictly conform to social distancing guidance. Nor do I think that Universities have the capacity to plan for a complicated transition in the span of months. But let's say that Universities figure it out, and invite students back to class in the fall. What would that an average day look like? I submit that the learning experience will be very, very different than students expect. Let's sketch a typical school day in the COVID-19 era. ...

This post was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I hope it conveys a point. Nostalgia for "in-person" classes may distort judgments about what this experience will look like in the fall. Things will not go back to normal. Professors and administrators should explain these dynamics to jittery students, who may demand a service they actually will not like. Learning is tough enough under normal circumstances. These measures will make that process even more difficult.

Howard Wasserman (Florida International), A Day in the Life:

Josh Blackman lays out what a day in the life of a law student will look like this fall--he is correct and it is not pretty. My concerns for the difficulty of teachers playing to both the room and the Zoom dovetail with the teaching problems he describes.

He concludes with an important point: Most students' will demand face-to-face classes, because most students hated Zoom. But most may not realize that they are demanding something that cannot be delivered two months from now and will look and feel different than what they imagine. Schools' most important task right now may be to communicate with students and lay out the realities (perhaps assigning Josh's post)--both to set student expectations and perhaps influence student demand.

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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