Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Over the next week, I plan to post three observations from my personal experiences teaching — and teaching in person — at a Catholic law school during the pandemic. In today’s post, I’ll address the question of health and safety for faculty and students in an in-person classroom environment, while a virulent disease rampages through our society. In the next post, I’ll discuss effectiveness of education given the constraints of a hybrid in-person/online format and social distancing with masks. In the third post, I’ll discuss the unprecedented challenges during the pandemic of fostering a sense of community, which is a central part of our mission as a Catholic law school.
Like other universities and law schools, we deferred to each professor’s (and student’s) judgment as to whether appearing in the classroom was safe. For the law school, we ended up (for first-year students) with more than 80 percent of our course sessions being offered in person, through the voluntary choices of teaching faculty, including myself. Our mostly in-person availability for first-year classes proved to be very popular with incoming students, several of whom told me that it influenced their final choice among schools, especially as the other two law schools in the Twin Cities had moved almost entirely online.
The University of St. Thomas, and the law school, devoted the months since the pandemic lock-down in March to plan for returning to in-person teaching in the fall. The dedication of the administration, information technology experts, and support staff cannot be praised enough. They made sure that we had the necessary technology to simultaneously provide in-person instruction and include students who had to remain online. They prepared each classroom for the necessary social distancing and essential sanitation.The associate dean and registrar put together an unprecedented schedule that accommodated the need to offer large-enrollment courses — including all of the first-year doctrinal courses — in smaller sections so that we could maintain social distancing. As we at the University of St. Thomas law school have only three classrooms that can accommodate this, the scheduling was amazingly complicated with many moving parts. And yet they made it happen. (I note that this was made possible by our deliberately smaller-sized law school, whereas I know of several law schools with larger student bodies that simply could not physically find the classroom space to social distance by breaking into smaller sections.)
We adopted strict protocols, with designated seating in our largest classrooms so that every student was seated six feet away every other student. And we mandated mask wearing both in and outside the classroom. Students were faithful in mask-wearing, without any attempt to resist. (The university had a back-up plan to impose student discipline if students refused masks. We never had to contemplate any such process in the law school.)
To avoid mixing students unnecessarily for greater exposure and to maintain classroom hygiene, the first-year students were broken into four subsections with separate physical scheduling. Each of the four subsections of fewer than 40 in number was assigned to the same classroom for all doctrinal classes. And each subsection experienced an afternoon succession of classes one after the other.
For my Civil Procedure students, had the three doctrinal courses on the afternoons of Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. So there was no intermittent introduction of other students into the classroom, with attendant sanitation problems. With no classes on Monday and Wednesday, they (and I) did not even need to be in the building at all on those days.
This created a quasi-bubble, with the set of approximately 35 students on the fourth-floor, for example, staying in or near that classroom and tending not to venture elsewhere in the building or interacting with the other group of 35 students that was on the third-floor at the same time. And they had next to no interaction with the other 70-some students in the parallel sub-sections that were meeting on other days of Monday and Wednesday and Friday morning.
As the professor, pursuant to university rules and the governor’s health protocols, I was permitted to wear either a face shield or mask. So that students could see more of my face, I chose a face shield. At least one of my colleagues chose to mask. And our podium at the front was set much more than six feet from any student. We each would sanitize our podium area before each class, in addition to further cleaning from custodial staff each evening.
I began the semester with some trepidation. I was strongly committed to in-person teaching, but I was not at all dismissive of the risks. Far from being any kind of Covid-denier, I was committed early on to mask-wearing, avoiding in-door settings like restaurants, etc. So I was a little nervous at the beginning, wanting to trust the university and health department protocols that what we were doing was safe, but not able to set aside fears altogether.
But it worked and my anxieties faded away as the semester went on. It proved amazingly safe to provide in-person teaching during the pandemic. Including the main undergraduate campus and other graduate programs as well as the law school, we completed fall semester (at Thanksgiving) without a single case – not one – of known Covid transmission in a classroom setting. To be sure, we can’t know everything and something might have been missed, despite diligent contact-tracing by the university. Still, with thousands of students across our two campuses attending in-person classes, the failure to trace even a single transmission of Covid to any classroom situation was a rather powerful statement in favor of the safety of in-person teaching.
That’s not to say that all students and faculty remained Covid-free. We were hardly isolated from the larger community. But whenever a positive test resulted, and the law school numbers always remained very low, the university carefully traced each other student who was located on the seating chart near that person. The tracing confirmed that social distancing and mask-wearing was followed and that no further transmission occurred, again to the best that could be accomplished through tracing. I know of one faculty colleague who contracted Covid, but her case also was traced to a neighborhood contact between children.
It cannot be emphasized enough that this was only possible because of our commitment to the health protocols. Social distancing and mask wearing was essential, but also sufficient.
As we start spring semester, we now face more contagious variants of Covid. The pandemic is far from over, as vaccination is not yet available for college professors and may not be for a few more months. The early information, which I’ve confirmed as best I can with experts, is that the new Covid variants are more contagious but that the virus travels no further in distance or by air. For that reason, the social distancing and mask protocols should remain just as efficacious in preventing transmission.
So, at least at this moment, I’m planning to continue the in-person teaching, but I begin again with some, but less, of the same trepidation that I felt at the beginning of the fall semester.