“These Are Strange Times”: Classes Resume at St. John’s Amidst Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic

By Matt Dean & Michael S. Dauber

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of modern life in every corner of the globe. As of this writing, the cumulative number of global cases has exceeded 44.3 million, and the virus has claimed well over 1.1 million lives worldwide. The United States leads the world in both cases and deaths. Our nation, which is home to four percent of the world’s population, has suffered one-fifth of all cases to date—and one-fifth of all deaths as well.

The sheer volume of cases has overwhelmed health care systems here and abroad, and the ongoing crisis has spurred quarantines, curfews, stay-at-home orders, shelter-in-place orders, shutdowns, and lockdowns. But amidst all of the chaos, classes resumed at St. John’s School of Law this semester with a mix of online and in-person classes.  The school opted to allow students to attend classes completely online, in person, or in a mix of modalities based on their needs and class availability. All official extracurricular activities have moved online.

Michael A. Simons, Dean of the Law School and John V. Brennan Professor of Law, says, “The way the St. John’s Law community has responded to the challenges of this semester has made me enormously proud.” He notes that the entire community—the students, the faculty, and the staff—have worked together to prepare, to adapt, and to take responsibility for each other. “It is unclear what the winter and spring will bring,” Dean Simons says, “but I’m confident that we’ll be ready and we’ll get through it.”

Beth Do, ‘21 and President of the Student Bar Association (SBA), says that she has “felt challenged by our lack of procedural systems and wondered if we were doing enough.” SBA responded with “a number of structural changes,” including creating a “President’s Council to gather student leaders and promote organizational collaboration, and the Affinity Group Alliance to support our affinity groups.”  The SBA also distributed “Wellness Boxes” and “hosted a virtual Fall Fest to welcome and connect 1Ls and returning students to student organizations.” Other initiatives included setting up a Textbook Bazaar for students to sell used books, building a Student Organization Directory, establishing a LinkTree to compile information for students in a centralized location, combining the SBA weekly newsletter with the “Week Ahead” newsletter sent out by the Law School at the end of each week, and bringing on a new Chief of Staff, Catherine Sims, ‘22.  “Many of us, myself included, feel lost in a sea of anxiety,” Do says. She encourages anyone with suggestions or feedback to email stjohns.sba@gmail.com.

Hybrid Class Schedules: Settling In

According to Sarah Jean Kelly, Vice Dean for Administration, 237 students opted for a fully online program for the fall semester. “The remainder of our students, nearly 600, have selected to take at least some of their classes in-person.” Dean Kelly notes that, although students and faculty have needed “to be flexible, to continually adapt to the changing circumstances as the semester progressed, and to demonstrate resilience,” the St. John’s Law student body has risen to the challenge. 

Dean Simons remarked on the ways in which the new social distancing protocols have affected the classroom experience.  “I knew that we were going to be okay soon after I started teaching Intro in August,” he says. “It took a little while to get over the awkwardness of a classroom full of masks (I never realized how much I read facial expressions in the classroom). But once I got past that, things were surprisingly normal—the new 1Ls were just as enthusiastic, energized, nervous, and eager to learn as ever. And they were learning. For me, that realization was the source of great hope.”

Indeed, some students are finding that online classes work well under the circumstances.  “For the most part, I’m satisfied with the way online classes are going,” says Ronald Eniclerico, ‘21.  “Everyone appears to be trying their best in a difficult situation.  It’s definitely challenging to engage in and participate in online classes, but I consider that an acceptable trade-off for the difficulties and stress of attending school during a pandemic.”  

But the new class format has also added significant challenges to an already difficult educational path. First-year students have likely been the hardest hit by the revamped class format, despite efforts to integrate students as much as possible.  One first-year student, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that “it has definitely been hard to establish any connections, whether it be with students or faculty because of COVID,” in part because one-on-one online interactions can be “awkward,” and in part due to connection and lag issues.  The student remarks that “the constant stress and isolation are starting to weigh heavily on everyone.”  But the student added that “other students are doing incredibly well observing social distancing protocols.”

Ciara Villalona-Lockhart, ‘22, points to the uncertainty the pandemic has brought to many students’ futures:  “Because a third of our law school education has been completed online, how will employers view our grades? Our ranks? Our ability, or inability, to secure internships, fellowships, or externships?  Our lack of participation in co-curricular or extracurricular activities due to social distancing concerns?”

The shift to online learning began in the latter half of the Spring 2020 semester. From the beginning, there were inevitable difficulties as students and professors learned to adapt to new technology and new modes of teaching. Michael Ofori, ‘21, has also found that, in spite of an “unstable network connection,” online learning is “running much more smoothly now that professors have had time to adjust to the system.” Bradley Jennings, ‘21, also notes that online learning is less troublesome than it was last spring: “This semester has been immensely better.” Jennings attributes the improvement to the adaptability of both students and professors. “I’m sure some of it is related to a personal adjustment to the new way of being in a COVID world,” he says, “but the professors have also adjusted their pedagogical approaches.” Some professors have increased engagement with students by “calling on students more” and “requiring cameras to be on always.” Others have simply become more comfortable in general with the technological tools, which has “produced better teaching and better learning.” 

One 2L student who commented on condition of anonymity applauds online professors as “outstanding and engaging. They facilitate participation in class and provide opportunities outside class to get to know them.” The student adds that the fall semester has gone “more smoothly” than last semester.

Along with the shift to online learning in the Spring 2020 semester, St. John’s followed the lead of other prominent law schools in New York and throughout the country in assessing student performance on a credit/no-credit, or pass/fail, basis. A 2L student who wishes to remain anonymous observes that, when classes went online, and then pass/fail, it became difficult to maintain a productive study schedule. “That wasn’t the most motivating.”

Not everyone agrees. One 3L, who also wishes to remain anonymous, has found that the uncertainty of the Spring 2020 semester provided a useful level of anxiety that paradoxically made it easier to focus. This semester, by contrast, this student is “no longer nervous or hesitant.” Now that the anxiety and uncertainty are somewhat at bay, this student says, “I am more lax about paying attention.” Additionally, social interactions that once occurred before or after class, or in the mealtimes between classes, now tend to occur during class time. “It makes a big difference not seeing friends,” the student says. “I find myself texting or messaging them during class. It’s very difficult to stay focused at home.”

As part of its response to the pandemic, and as required by the state of New York, the Law School has imposed and maintained social distancing guidelines. For some, social distancing has contributed to a sense of isolation. “I work better when I see people around me working,” one student says. “I used to like to park myself in the library with friends and work for hours. But at home, I am alone at my desk in my bedroom and end up taking Netflix breaks very often.” 

Nowadays, any student who chooses to spend hours working in the library could very well find her- or himself more or less alone. As one second-year student put it, “This campus has turned into a ghost town. I do not even think that there are enough students on campus or even in one area of school to violate the social distancing policy.”

That sentiment is not limited to students.  “For those of us who are in the Law School building, you’ll notice that it is very different than in prior years,” Dean Kelly said.  “We are effectively operating in a low-contact, socially distant manner, but it doesn’t have the same sense of the St. John’s Law spirit that I love and had come to expect each day when I arrived at the Law School.  So we have had to find ways to channel that spirit and sense of family in other ways.” Dean Kelly pointed to the small group meetings and online office hours sessions that have helped students keep in contact with the administration as solutions. “I hope that all of our students know how eager we are to work with you, and know that you can reach out to us at any time.”

Co-Curricular Activities: Moving Online 

Student activity leaders have made diligent efforts to adapt their ordinarily vibrant in-person programming to the realities of an online semester. Eniclerico, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development (JCRED), said: “Working with an organization has also been difficult, and our annual in-person events are sorely missed.  Nevertheless, everyone has been very communicative and doing great work, and the semester has been rewarding in its own way.” 

The Moot Court Honor Society and the Polestino Trial Advocacy Institute (PTAI) have faced a raft of unique challenges as well. Moving dynamic, live trials and oral arguments online, mirroring efforts throughout the federal and state court systems, has required creativity and ingenuity.  Jennings, who serves as the Executive Director of the Moot Court Honor Society, said that running the group “required an overhaul—or even a tearing down and building anew of aspects of the program,” and that “every aspect of running the program now takes a concerted effort to ensure” it is “addressed, whereas many of these things used to take care of themselves.” But despite the challenges, bright spots have emerged: Jennings noted that “the online format of some events has allowed a broader audience to participate than when the event occurs in-person,” and PTAI has posted solid performances in multiple online competitions in recent weeks, including a semi-finals finish in the Syracuse National Trial Competition, and advancing a team to the “elite 8” in the newly created National All Star Bracket.

One student leader has been pleased to see that groups have worked together to cosponsor and promote each other’s events. Even so, planning an event takes time and effort, and there’s always a chance that “only a handful of people will attend.” This student notes that it has been particularly difficult to engage with first-year students: “Since we can’t meet in person, it’s hard to build relationships.” 

Although many student groups participated in the online version of Fall Fest, which was intended to facilitate engagement with new students, the results were mixed. In previous years, 1Ls could browse the cafeteria, meet student leaders, and discover new organizations. By its very nature, this year’s online version could not provide even a shadow of the same experience. Engaging with new students, as well as promoting events, depends largely on social media engagement, for better or for worse. 

Virtual events have been a mixed blessing for participants as well as student leaders. Some students have been able to attend more events. For example, one 2L who lives some distance from campus can attend online events at will, whereas attending in-person events would require planning because of the long commute. But for another 2L, “Engaging in activities through WebEx or Zoom just feels like another class lecture.”

For all of the challenges, however, the online student activity format has yielded some benefits.  According to SBA Treasurer Mike Sohn, the SBA has “been able to meet on a more regular basis than past SBA e-boards.” The increased opportunities to connect have “helped us immensely in discussing the new challenges that have been presented by the pandemic,” Sohn says.

Next Semester: Looking Ahead

According to a new course policy announced by the Law School’s administration on October 28, remote participation will not be approved for in-person classes unless necessary to meet a graduation requirement. “We’ve learned over the course of the semester that the classroom experience is improved for both the students and the faculty when the students are participating in the course in the modality in which it is being offered, and we’ve used that information in planning for the spring,” Dean Kelly says.

Student reaction was swift. One 2L, who commented on condition of anonymity, said, “It is an absolute double-standard that certain professors or administrators can force students to attend certain classes remotely yet will not give those tuition-paying students the same optionality with respect to the offered in-person classes.” Noting as well that the registrar issued a list of online classes and a list of in-person classes, but no “cumulative version,” this student wondered if the school “now sees itself as two different entities.”  

According to another 2L, under the new policy, “students are forced to decide between their safety and comfort and completing a course they might have a compelling interest in.” Moreover, the student was unsure why the administration would not extend accommodations for classes that are not required for graduation if it already does so for the required courses.  

Another anonymous 2L says, “The people who are studying remotely generally are doing so for substantive reasons.” Some students choose online classes because the health of a loved one is compromised, or even because it’s more economical to live in a different region of the country. Under these circumstances, the student says, the new policy could be unfair to online students, and particularly to third-year students. “Professors and students are able to juggle in-class and remote participation.” Allowing online students to enroll in the “courses that they are interested in” could “make a big difference for students who cannot have the in-person experience that they were hoping for.” 

Alexis Zobeideh, ’22, who attends remotely while living out of state, agrees. Given that professors have been conducting hybrid classes all semester long, “it doesn’t make sense” to ask students to move in-state and risk exposure to enroll in the classes of their choice.

Dean Simons defended the new policy, citing concerns for “pedagogical effectiveness.” Teaching “both kinds of modalities simultaneously” is not as effective as teaching a class either completely in-person or online.  For online students watching streams of in-person classes, “either the students are passively watching an in-person class, or the professor is simultaneously trying to teach both an in-person and an online class. For the fall semester, that situation was unavoidable in some instances, in part because students had registered for classes before the modalities had been set. For the spring semester, though, because students will know which the course modality before registering, those students who must be all-remote will be able to choose from among a large selection of online classes, while students who prefer in-person classes will be able to choose from among courses that will be taught in a fully in-person format.”

Students offered additional suggestions for improving the Law School experience in the age of COVID. 

This semester, the administration has compressed the calendar by scheduling a number of “legislative days” in which Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday classes are held on Fridays. One student, a 3L, suggested calling an end to this practice. “It is utterly unreasonable to expect us to do more preparation in less time,” the student says. Because Fridays are ordinarily free of classes, many students use those days for class preparation, study, or other work. The loss of that work time can present a difficult choice between “being exhausted” or “being minimally prepared.”

Another student, a 1L who attends in-person and remotely, recommends improvements to, or at least a clarification of, the absence policy. “It isn’t clear what happens if we don’t feel well and don’t attend our in-person class but instead attend online. There needs to be a clearer message from the school and professors.”

One 2L would go much farther: “Return to fully in-person. If faculty feel that they can only deliver classes remotely, the professors can livestream into the classroom.” 

For as long as anyone can remember, St. John’s Law has prided itself on creating a sense of family. “One of its cornerstones,” Jennings observes, is that “St. John’s is a tight-knit community.” Over the past months, the school has persevered through unprecedented hardships and has endeavored to provide a high-quality education to in-person and remote students alike. The process has not been entirely smooth. If early reactions to the new class registration policy are any indication, the path ahead is unlikely to be entirely free of stumbling blocks. “None of us, when we started law school, anticipated it ending this way, and it is looking more and more like this is in fact the way it’s going to end,” Eniclerico said of finishing law school during the pandemic. “I can only hope for a big going-away party at some point, be it late in the spring, summer or beyond.  As a bit of an introvert, that feels like a strange thing to say, but these are strange times.”

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