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Breaking routine: Law school closures present challenges, opportunities for students

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Abrupt law school closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have resulted in both challenges and opportunities for law students.

As the coronavirus began to spread in the United States, universities sent law students home, seeking to to slow the virus’s spread.

I am a 1L in the Weekend JD program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.  Even in early February, many students were already openly speculating that in-person classes would eventually be cancelled. In late January, Chicago was one of the first U.S. cities with a confirmed coronavirus case. To many of us, it seemed inevitable that we would be forced online.

One of the unique things about weekend programs is that students come to campus for two full days of classes every other week—from all over the country. In my 1L section, friends and colleagues fly in from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Utah; and that’s on top of those of us from several other states who drive, take a train, or ride a bus.

So, it was no surprise on March 12 when Loyola-Chicago announced that classes would be conducted remotely via Zoom beginning with weekend classes during the second week of March.

Of course, such a drastic change comes with many challenges—especially for part-time law students who have other careers as well as family responsibilities. These challenges include maintaining focus, internet connectivity difficulties, and concerns about exams.

For me, the weekends in Chicago were an effective way to focus only on studying and participating in classes. I would usually arrive at the law school one or two days before our on-campus weekends to review and work on case briefs or outlines. Dedicated study time without distractions from work or family responsibilities proved very helpful.

There’s just something about being at home that is inherently distracting. There’s always more laundry, dishes, vacuuming, and countless other tasks that may be insignificant individually, but when taken together, they can use up a lot of precious time. Suddenly attending classes remotely via Zoom in my own home was just not as conducive as in-class discussions.

Another challenge is a lack of reliable internet access. While our home has internet access, it is insufficient to meet the bandwidth needed for some video streaming. Frequent buffering of recorded video lectures had already been problematic. So, as soon as I learned classes would be held remotely via Zoom, one of my first phone calls was to an internet service provider. I took the first available appointment. But the day before the appointment, the provider cancelled all of its installs for at least several weeks. My new installation is now anticipated to be completed a few days before final exams.

Moreover, all of my professors have switched to open-book, online final exams. Now, to a non-law school student, that may seem like a blessing. It is not. Law school exams are about spotting issues and addressing as many of them as quickly and efficiently as possible under impossible time constraints. Compounding the urgency to tackle as many issues as possible is that law schools grade on a bell curve.

I would much rather sit for a closed-book, proctored exam in a quiet atmosphere rather than take one at home.

But closing campus has also reminded me how blessed many of us are to have supportive universities, families, bosses, and good friends with whom we can share our experiences.

My school’s administration has been very supportive throughout this process. Communication is constant as the university works through difficult decisions leading the law school to close the doors on its physical building. Professors have reached out and offered to help us in any way they could.

The university’s conference center, where several of us stay for on-campus weekends, refunded my room fees for the rest of the semester within a single day of asking. It seems like the university has done all it can do to mitigate the effects of an unprecedented closure.

My wife and boss have also both been completely supportive the last few weeks. My boss has allowed me to adjust my schedule. My wife could not be more encouraging and supportive. She has taken care of nearly everything for our six-year-old daughter even while she is experiencing her own uncertainties as a second-grade teacher in a state that has closed all of its schools until at least May 1.

Law school friends have become an invaluable resource—even though we haven’t seen each other in person for three weeks now. We text and use WhatsApp every day to talk about classes, the coronavirus, our families and our jobs.

I couldn’t image doing law school under these circumstances without the support that has been demonstrated by the law school, as well as my family, boss and fellow students.

As we move forward, we should recognize that the challenges we face are not insurmountable obstacles. Certainly, some students are affected more than others—loss of employment, unavailability of child care, housing concerns, lack of access to technological resources, and many other difficult problems.

But I hope that future employers can see our tenacity and resiliency, during this global pandemic, by pressing on and succeeding in law school during a worldwide pandemic.

Travis Thickstun Travis Thickstun is a first-year student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. He has master’s degrees in jurisprudence from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and in theological studies from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a husband, father and police lieutenant.