The COVID-19 Puzzle

NYU Law charts a way forward amid the complex risks of the coronavirus pandemic.


When on March 9 Dean Trevor Morrison announced that all NYU Law classes would be conducted remotely for several weeks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Safeena Mecklai ’21 was stunned by the shift but optimistic that it would be short-lived, she recalls.

“Being someone who’s involved on campus, who loves being on campus…it was jarring to think that my routine would be disrupted, that I’d have to be away from somewhere that I loved going,” says Mecklai, president of the Student Bar Association (SBA). “But it was mitigated by the fact that I thought it was temporary until we got a sense of what was happening or figured out what best practices would be in the city and state.”

The change wasn’t as temporary as some hoped. In the weeks that followed the dean’s announcement, remote learning at NYU Law was extended through the end of the semester, setting the stage for long-term planning to navigate the pandemic as it continued in New York and around the world. New York State and New York City instituted sweeping restrictions that closed public schools, suspended the operations of many businesses, and required residents to stay at home. Although law students could remain in NYU Law housing, many left campus for the rest of the semester. All in-person events were canceled or postponed, or—like Convocation, the biggest celebration of the academic year—they went virtual.

“NYU Law has been tested as never before,” says Morrison. “In one sense, the decision to switch to remote learning was easy to make in order to protect the health of our students, faculty, and staff. In another sense, it was hard, not only because of the logistic challenges, but because we treasure the in-person interactions in our community.”

Summer brought new challenges. NYU Law administrators, faculty, and staff were faced with the task of determining how classes and other activities could resume safely in the fall, in an environment full of unknowns. How the institution could best carry out its mission of teaching, scholarship, and engagement with the world—while still protecting all of its members against threats from a pandemic—presented a puzzle with many complex parts and high stakes.

In July, as this article was being prepared, Dean Morrison announced a detailed plan that involves some in-person instruction and remote learning, together with a broad spectrum of measures to facilitate social distancing and prevent infection.

Uncertainty remains, as Morrison notes. “For many of the issues we are addressing, there are no easy answers or established models,” he says. “In adapting, we are committed to three principles: prioritizing the safety and health of the NYU Law community, innovating to maintain a standard of excellence in our core academic mission, and striving to provide information and flexibility to our students.

Rapid Responses

Within three days after Morrison announced the shift to distance learning, faculty members were teaching their classes virtually. The Law School successfully petitioned the New York State Court of Appeals for a waiver of strict compliance with New York state bar rules that would otherwise have made JD and LLM students ineligible for the bar exam after a semester of distance learning.

 “We made it through— battered but  not broken and perhaps more connected, despite the distance.” Melissa Murray

“The transition to remote instruction was, to put it generously, abrupt,” says Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law Melissa Murray in an email. “Happily, we’d built a rapport over the course of the semester that served us well as we adapted to new circumstances, and my students were incredibly flexible and understanding as I muddled through the first few classes on an unfamiliar platform.”

Even as they grew accustomed to using the videoconferencing technology, students and professors say that they missed being able to see each other in person. “I really like to be in class,” says Zoë Lillian ’21. “And that’s not just for the professor, it’s for my peers as well.” Murray notes that moments of levity, such as when her son walked into her “classroom” demanding a snack or when a student’s newborn broke into a wail during a discussion, helped everyone feel a little closer. “We made it through—battered but not broken and perhaps more connected, despite the distance,” she adds.

To reduce pressure on students, the Law School adopted a mandatory credit/fail grading system for the Spring 2020 semester. The SBA surveyed students: a majority of students supported the change. “We didn’t want the letter grades to become a proxy for how people in difficult circumstances were [affected] and how COVID-19 affected people individually, and so the mandatory pass/fail became apparent as the most equitable solution,” said Kevin Tupper ’20, then-president of the SBA, in a March interview.

For students under financial strain or facing unexpected expenses related to the pandemic, the Law School established the NYU Law COVID-19 Hardship Fund with support from alumni and other donors. Students applied for funding for food, housing, child care, and books and supplies, including costs stemming from the shift to distance learning. A grant from the Fund, for example, helped Lillian set up a study space in her apartment and get the equipment to access her classes. As of July 15, more than 400 students had received funding from the Hardship Fund.

Externally, faculty and students responded to the pandemic with more than a dozen separate efforts in clinics and other programs to support vulnerable populations affected by COVID-19. These included incarcerated persons in densely populated correctional facilities, families involved in New York City’s foster care system, and people detained in immigration jails, among others. In the Housing Law Externship, for instance, students worked with Legal Aid clients who faced unlawful evictions, rent burdens, issues with apartment fixtures and utilities, and discrimination and harassment from landlords who suspected tenants were ill.

“It’s really hard to give back in the midst of this pandemic when we can’t leave the four walls of our apartment,” Rachel Riegelhaupt ’21 said in an April interview. “But…being able to continue representing low-income tenants who need assistance specifically right now has been a really meaningful part of this clinic.”

The Office of Student Affairs hosted virtual events that included yoga, wine tasting, a movie night featuring Legally Blonde, and a spirit week with costume and photo challenges such as “Monochrome Monday” and “Hall-o-Quarantine” in which students dressed up for Halloween a few months early. Law Students of Catan, a gaming group, continued gaming on the chat application Discord instead of in D’Agostino Hall’s basement. The SBA held a remote happy hour with a DJ, and sponsored a T-shirt design competition to benefit food pantry God’s Love We Deliver and the COVID-19 Hardship Fund.

“It’s so important, especially in these times, to lean into the thing that makes us so strong.” Lindsay Kendrick

“It’s hard to get the heavy academic part of law school without the wonderful community and social aspects that surround it, so that was tough,” Mecklai says. “[The SBA] was really concerned about finding ways to continue to build community and advocate for students even in the remote environment.”

From small student gatherings to monumental events—like the streamed graduation celebration—the NYU Law community found ways to overcome the challenges of distance. “It was sad watching graduation by myself on my laptop as I packed up my apartment in D’Agostino,” says Joy Kim ’20, in an email. “But I was so touched by how many people surprised us with video messages. My section mates and I excitedly texted each other when our L professors showed up on the screen. Hearing our professors and prominent figures like Justice Ginsburg and Hillary Clinton send us out into the world to ‘increase the justice quotient,’ as Bryan Stevenson said in his message, made me very proud to graduate from this institution.”

“I think one of our greatest strengths at the Law School is our sense of community,” says Lindsay Kendrick, dean of students and assistant dean for diversity and inclusion. “So even though we are forced to be physically separated from one another due to a global health crisis, it’s so important, especially in these times, to lean into the thing that makes us so strong.”

Preparing for Fall

The impact of the pandemic continued into summer. Some students saw their summer associate positions shortened by law firms, and employment turbulence was felt in all sectors of the recruiting market. The Office of Career Services (OCS) launched various initiatives to assist students and employers. Early Interview Week moved from July 2020 to January 2021, becoming the Winter Interview Program. “My colleagues and I spoke with a number of national firms and, based on the uncertainty of several state bar exam dates, the desire to see Fall 2020 grades, and the overall business climate, these firms enthusiastically embraced the move to January,” says Irene Dorzback, associate dean of OCS. The office hosted a webinar with more than 100 law firms to update potential employers on the Law School’s plans to reopen and to help them plan for the upcoming interview season. OCS also distributed a weekly newsletter for students, and the Law School established a summer course for students in shortened summer programs: Applied Accounting and Finance for Legal Practice, taught by Professor Robert Jackson Jr., a former Securities and Exchange commissioner (see “Keeping Watch on the Markets”).

For recent graduates planning to take the New York bar exam, the timing and import of the exam remained a source of uncertainty. In July the New York State Court of Appeals canceled the September bar exam because of health and safety concerns and announced a temporary practice authorization for recent law school graduates. The Law School has continued to advocate for its graduates as guidance evolves, including concerning questions around a remote testing option.

Meanwhile, the Law School faced an overarching question: what would the Fall semester look like? In a survey, a majority of JD students said they would like to be in classrooms in the fall. “Our students told us they wanted to come back,” Morrison says. “Our challenge has been to find a way to do that as safely as possible for everyone at the Law School.” NYU Law has sought a flexible approach, responsive both to the needs of students and to guidance from state and city government and the University, Morrison says.

As planning for the fall went into high gear, a wide range of practical details had to be considered. The capacity of every classroom was measured to determine how many people could fit safely into the room. Teams did test runs to evaluate how NYU Law’s videoconferencing technology would best work in a classroom setting. The Law School ordered masks.

In July—while recognizing that circumstances might result in adapations and changes during the academic year—NYU Law outlined plans for classes and safety protocols. Under these plans, the Law School will offer both remote and hybrid courses. In a hybrid format a professor will be physically present in a classroom, teaching to the students in the room and to those participating remotely. Seats will be spaced to reduce classroom occupancy, and for classes with large enrollments, each student will be assigned to a cohort for alternating in-person and virtual participation. Students have the option of participating remotely in most classes. All classes that do not follow the hybrid model will be taught remotely, and Fall 2020 exams will also be given remotely.

Everyone on campus will be required to wear a face covering and to keep a six-foot distance from others as much as possible. To be on campus, individuals will need to complete a daily online questionnaire that screens for COVID-19 symptoms.

The University is instituting a testing program with multiple components. Law School community members must be tested to receive clearance to enter academic and administrative buildings. Testing will be provided during the semester if individuals are exposed to COVID-19 or display symptoms, and there will be ongoing testing of representative members of the community.

In residence halls, common areas will remain closed. “We have put in a lot of safety measures,” says Nancy Mah Chau, director of residence services, “including staggering move-in by appointment, allowing for flexibility in arrival and departure dates, and other cleaning and spacing protocols to reduce stress as well as exposure for our students.”

Morrison announced in July that every JD, LLM, and MSL student will receive a $1,000 Technology Support Grant. Every student receiving a partial tuition scholarship from the Law School will have their scholarship award increased by $1,000. The Law School will award grants through the COVID-19 Hardship Fund through at least the end of Fall 2020; all Law School students can apply for up to $1,000 in support, in addition to any grants they received from the Fund last spring.

Heading into her final year of law school, Mecklai says that although this won’t be the L experience she had envisioned, the resiliency and compassion of her peers has influenced her perspective. “As SBA, what are the ways that we can continue to support NYU’s community of really incredible, active, advocating, supportive students…?” Mecklai says. “I’m really hopeful that, maybe by the end of my 3L year, we can all be back in some capacity, but I’m thankful for the ways in which students and the Law School are adapting to what I think is just a tremendous leadership challenge in this moment.”

Jade McClain is a public affairs officer at NYU Law.

Posted September 11, 2020.