KU Law adapts to a pandemic

Changes to instruction, summer experiences and operations

Large classes, including this section of Civil Procedure, are meeting at the Burge Union this semester. Physcial distancing guidelines reduced capacity of classrooms in Green Hall. Photo by Margaret Hair.

Over a few weeks in March, colleges and universities across the country moved their classes, students, faculty – everything – from on-campus to online. It was the beginning of a shift that continues this fall, as schools adapt to educate students amid a global pandemic.

At the University of Kansas School of Law, students, faculty and staff have adapted everything from classroom layouts to course schedules in the past several months. The changes have included remote classes, adjustments to summer programs, and reduced capacity in Green Hall.

“Our faculty and students have worked together since March to change how we teach and learn the law,” said Stephen Mazza, dean and professor of law. “We’ve had to be flexible about our policies, class formats and building procedures. This has been a time of quick and frequent change. I have been encouraged by the law school community’s resilience and adaptability through everything.”

Going remote

On March 11, KU announced it would delay the resumption of in-person classes until March 23, adding a second week to Spring Break. On March 17, the university announced online instruction would continue for the rest of the spring semester. Faculty adapted their courses for an online format, pre-recording lectures and planning to host live class sessions via Zoom.

“The students and faculty alike really rose to the occasion in spring 2020 when presented with the need to shift all courses fully online with little notice,” said Uma Outka, associate dean for faculty. “The university and law school tech services gave excellent support. Most important to all of us was that students were still able to learn despite the big change.”

The law school temporarily changed several academic policies to accommodate changes to the learning environment, financial challenges and personal circumstances. On March 30, Dean Stephen Mazza announced a revised grading policy for the semester. Students received either satisfactory or unsatisfactory grades for spring 2020 courses.

“It was clear that many students faced pressures and challenges that did not exist before the move to online classes and the course of schools and businesses,” Mazza said. “Because those hardships were distributed randomly and unequally across the student body, there was a significant likely that a student’s grade during the spring semester would not reflect that student’s abilities under normal circumstances.”

The school also suspended GPA requirements for students to maintain scholarships through the end of the fall 2020 semester. Most scholarships at the School of Law normally require students to maintain a 3.0 minimum cumulative GPA beginning at the end of the student’s first year. Temporarily removing that requirement resulted in an estimated $250,000 increase in scholarship allocations. 

By early April, University Commencement was canceled, summer courses moved online, and campus buildings closed.

Meeting needs through summer experiences

As the spring semester ended, the law school’s Career Services Office worked with a team of faculty members to ensure upper-level students would have summer legal experiences. KU Law offered five programs over the summer, including:

Heather Spielmaker, assistant dean of career services, said the multi-pronged approach allowed as many students as possible to expand their legal skill sets. The program created nearly 100 opportunities, including 34 research assistants filling 40 positions; nine Advance Care Planning Clinic workers; six Legal Corps interns; and 42 public interest stipend recipients.

“The Career Services Office at KU Law strives to ensure that all students have the chance to gain legal skills over the summer,” Spielmaker said. “This program helped us achieve our goal.”

The KU Law Legal Corps paired students with pro bono opportunities with regional nonprofit and government agencies, as well as internships with Kansas Legal Services. Two students conducted legal research for the Willow Domestic Violence Center and Douglas County CASA. Another helped complete a community legal ­needs assessment for Legal Aid of Western Missouri.

Through the Legal Corps, second-year law student Natasha Veenis interned with Kansas Legal Services in its Wichita office. Her work focused on domestic, family, juvenile, adoption and social security legal issues.

“Before this summer, I was not sure what type of law I wanted to practice,” Veenis said. “This internship revealed to me that my passion rests in advocating for those who feel voiceless and striving to give them the justice they deserve.”

Adjusting for the new academic year

Faculty and staff spent the summer preparing for the fall semester, in coordination with the university’s Protect KU plan. Faculty chose whether to offer their courses in the classroom or online, and students with health and safety concerns had the option to attend classes remotely.  

Of the law school’s 63 courses this semester, about 40% are being taught in person, 40% online and 20% in a hybrid format, as of early October. Required courses with larger enrollments, such as Civil Procedure and Criminal Law, are divided into cohorts that split their time between attending class in Green Hall and participating virtually.

Signs promoting physical distancing mark staircases, elevators and common spaces in the building. Classroom seats have been rearranged, with the largest lecture space capacity going from more than 100 students down to 33. There are hand sanitizing and disinfecting supplies throughout the building, and masks are required on campus.

Student groups host their meetings and events online. Some activities have moved to the Green Hall lawn, following social distancing and mask guidelines. The law school continues to host lecture events, including the first-ever virtual edition of the Kansas Law Review Symposium in October.   

Fall classes will end on Nov. 24, just before the Thanksgiving Break. Students will have a study week before the final exam period in December.

Looking ahead

Plans are underway for the spring semester. Classes will begin on Jan. 25 and run through April 23, with exams in early May. The spring semester schedule includes a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote courses, following the same physical distancing guidelines in place this fall.

“We recognize circumstances could change again as we make plans for the spring and beyond,” Mazza said. “With that in mind, we are taking the lessons we learned this fall and applying them to next semester, keeping the safety of our KU Law community at the center of our decisions.”

For current updates about KU Law operations, visit law.ku.edu/updates.

— By Margaret Hair

This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of the KU Law magazine.