COVID-19: Community Updates and Resources
The novel coronavirus has changed daily life for everyone at Albany Law School. Student organizations are holding video calls from their members' hometowns. Admitted students are
visiting campus virtually, through video tours and podcasts. Zoom has become the default medium for students, faculty, and staff alike.
In higher education, drastic changes don't happen overnight. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced institutions across the country to make quick decisions, transforming their operations virtually while maintaining continuity, quality, and community.
This is the story of how Albany Law School—and its people—responded to the challenge.
On March 10, President and Dean Alicia Ouellette announced the postponement of large gatherings and major events, including Kate Stoneman Day. Two days later, the law school extended spring break to allow faculty to transition their coursework online.
"That was an incredibly heavy lift. It was a huge ask of our faculty. Normally, we'd give them six months to learn the technology, to start experimenting with content," Dean Ouellette said. "It's a big deal that the faculty rose to the challenge, and converted their classes to a dynamic online format in just one week."
On March 19, Dean Ouellette notified campus that the remainder of the semester would occur in this digital format. Soon after, the law school's buildings closed. On March 23, employees—those who weren't already working remotely—began logging on from home. On March 31, faculty voted to adopt major changes to the grading policy.
Then, on April 2, the news many had anticipated—a delayed commencement—arrived from Dean Ouellette. But with the news came a promise.
"Our Commencement will have all the bells and whistles. Our graduates will walk in their regalia. Families and friends will be invited. We will laugh, cry, and celebrate together. In person," she wrote.
Transferring Albany Law's 100-plus spring courses online took a tremendous amount of labor by ITS staff, including some temporary hires in tech support. Faculty worked long hours to upload their coursework online—some having to use unfamiliar technology from their homes, according to Antony Haynes, Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives.
"We have faculty that have spent 30 or 40 years teaching in a face-to-face format who have never taught online before," Dean Haynes said.
For some faculty members, once they adjusted to online teaching, they found room to use the technology for more than by-the-books learning.
Professor Christine Chung hosts weekly Netflix watch parties through a browser extension that allows students and other guests to watch the same show, banter, and chat.
"It's not in any way meant to minimize the challenges that people have," she said. "I wanted something that was fun and that demarcated that the week was over—we've been doing them on Friday nights—and it's just a blast."
In her courses, she's using Zoom functions like breakout rooms for smaller group work and as a way to check in on students in a more individualized setting.
"Our students are amazing. They're working so hard to deal with all of the challenges caused by the pandemic," Professor Chung said. "There are all kinds of life consequences. I am so grateful for their patience and their persistence."
There have also been some surprising moments. In early April, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason joined a Lawyers as Leaders class to share his perspective on leadership and his tips on public speaking. He even recorded video shout-outs for students' friends and family members. The next morning, Esiason talked about the experience on his New York City radio show.
"It took up about an hour of my time, and it's something that I really enjoyed," Esiason told his listeners. "These [students] are high achievers, and they're paying attention to what's going on in their world. ... Heck, it's a great thing to be a part of."
For the Schaffer Law Library staff, moving quickly to provide students and faculty access to information from home was nearly seamless. Two years ago, staff began getting some reference materials online—without any inkling of an impending pandemic—as a way to supplement the law school's growth in online graduate programs.
Early in the transition,
the library published a resource that provides free access to study guides from Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Wolters Kluwer.
"Before all this happened, I was polling students and talking to the [Student Bar Association] and they certainly said yes, online study guides are great. But it wasn't that they were demanding it," said Thomas Hemstock, the library's Research, Instructions and Acquisitions Librarian. "Law textbooks are probably one of the areas where print is overwhelmingly the most popular option."
Library staff operated optimistically, thinking they would keep the building open for students without dependable internet access to attend online courses. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's directive to completely reduce the state's non-essential workforce meant Legal Bluebooks had to be left behind . The reference desk is now operated via Skype messenger.
"I really miss that physical place. When I'm there, the library speaks to me," said Professor David Walker, director of the Schaffer Law Library. "I personally love the people I work with on a day-to-day basis. I like being able to see faculty, staff, and students in person."
Meanwhile, the Career and Professional Development Center staff began reaching out to employers early on, encouraging them to adapt their summer programs to the current climate. But some students saw their placements dematerialize or had their workloads reduced. The focus now is finding those students something new, while also encouraging them to make the best of the situation. Face-to-face video technology is helping personalize those interactions.
"It's been so nice—as opposed to telephone calls—with us able to see them, and them able to see us. It eases a little of the anxiety," said Joanne Casey, director of the Career and Professional Development Center. "We can check in to see how they are doing both mentally and physically."
The Career and Professional Development Center began developing the program "Thriving in Uncertain Times," which features experts and other speakers who found success during the Great Recession.
"Because we're doing it via Zoom, I was able to get an alumnus from Florida, and one who is in New York City. It's really a chance for us to engage alumni from locations that aren't close by, who haven't been engaged because of the distance," Casey said. "As we move in this direction—even when we all get back together—this technology is a nice way to engage alumni."
For students within The Justice Center, interacting in-person with clients, and dealing with sensitive and confidential matters, is a huge piece of the law school experience. They are still making progress on those cases with "a little bit of improvisation and a lot of anticipation," said Professor Sarah Rogerson, director of the
Immigration Law Clinic.
Many of the in-house clinics set students up with access to case materials so they could work with clients remotely. Secure phone lines and case management software were made accessible to them from home. Video calls have replaced in-person client meetings, with precautions to avoid any lapse in privacy or a Zoom bombing—where uninvited attendees access a virtual meeting. The students are making it work.
"We can do a lot to move a case forward without revealing our client's sensitive information," Rogerson said.
Working and learning from home looks different for everyone. For some, the experience has brought about feelings of isolation. For others, it is a chaotic balance of occupying children without a structured school day, sharing a workspace, and doing their jobs.
Various student groups are hosting Zoom happy hours and online chats to share more than just coursework. Most have a lighter focus—introducing their pets, sharing law school memes, or exchanging theories on the popular Netflix series "Tiger King."
The human resources department hosts a mid-morning virtual coffee break to switch gears off work and say hello.
Dean Ouellette hosts a town hall every afternoon on Zoom to stay connected and to share the latest news with students, faculty, and staff. The town halls have even included special guests: Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan ’94 recently joined a session, and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ’75 is scheduled for later this month.
Additionally, many professors are holding more frequent office hours as a way to say, "We're here."
"The deans have gone out of their way to make themselves accessible. I think that has made this transition a lot smoother. Knowing that the entire law school community is on one page makes this entire thing more digestible," said 3L class president Kieran Murphy '20.
For the Class of 2020, the news of a rescheduled bar exam was tough to handle on top of a final law school semester flipped upside down. Murphy brought the class presidents from all 15 New York law schools together to pen a collective letter from the students' perspective. The 12-page document was delivered to the Court of Appeals on April 3, just days after all 15 New York law school deans sent similar letter concerning the summer 2020 bar exam.
"I sympathize with people who have families around them or who have a home that is hectic for whatever reason," Murphy said. "They didn't sign up for this. Law school was a sanctuary for some people. I think that was the motivation for writing this letter. It's not just impacting me. It was important to give that perspective a voice."
At a time when stillness and tranquility is needed, Professor David Walker had to figure out a way to swap his in-house meditation sessions with something virtual. He created a written program that people can follow as they wish, and organized Zoom meditations once a week.
"I was hesitant at first, because it seems that meditation is essentially an opportunity to get away from technology," he said, recalling some hiccups like Zoom sound effects interrupting the session. "I had to shut down my phone, put it on airplane mode. But otherwise, during the 25 minutes where we're meditating, it's pretty quiet."
Mental and emotional health are top of mind for many. The law school's counselor, Dr. Peter Cornish, is meeting with students through video and phone calls. The student-run
Wellness Initiative has also been increasingly active by bringing guest speakers, virtual workout classes, and other resources to everyone at home. On their
Rise in Wellness blog, they regularly post tips and tricks for staying healthy and productive at home both when class is in session and in free moments. Recent posts contain dozens of hand-picked shows and movies on various streaming services, and comfort food recipes to tackle before a binge-watching session.
Many students, faculty, staff, and guests have had to miss out on milestones and tentpole events. At the same time, there are noticeable pockets of positivity.
On April 7, the
Government Law Center hosted an Immigration 101 event—originally planned as an in-person CLE—and organizers were pleasantly surprised by the Zoom technology. It turned out to be a well-attended, educational event with minimal issue.
Professor Ava Ayers, director of the Government Law Center, said the event brought nearly 200 attendees. The online format worked well for the subject matter—learning the basics of immigration law, potential consequences, and possible strategies in immigration cases—and it may be an avenue to explore for future events.
"Being online lets us meet people where they are. It lets people tune in without spending time to travel. The in-person component is not as important," she said. "There's some loss, but there's also a big gain which is being able to reach many more people in a way that's very convenient for them."
For Dean Haynes, this unexpected format has brought an opportunity to reflect and expand the law school's impact going forward.
"My expectation is that every institution of higher learning—including Albany Law School—will take a hard look at the curriculum and try to determine which modes of delivery make the most sense," he said. "In some cases, having a 100 percent face-to-face class is going to be the best mode of learning. In some cases, having a 100 percent online format will be the best mode of delivery."
Promoting philanthropy in a pandemic is a sensitive issue. The Institutional Advancement staff has shifted its focus to a specialized fund that help students during times exactly like this.
The Helen Wilkinson Memorial Student Assistance Fund—named after a beloved former registrar
who regularly gave her own money to students in need—exists to provide financial help to students experiencing unexpected and urgent situations. As students navigate the unexpected—now and later—the fund can bring needed support for bar exam preparation assistance, living expenses, health care costs, and other emergent needs due to the pandemic.
On March 25, during Albany Law School's annual Give Day, more than 225 donors gave $77,000,
with $21,000 (and counting) specifically earmarked for the Wilkinson Fund. AccessLex Institute later
contributed an additional $25,000 to the student emergency fund.
And while raising money to help students is a focus, the advancement and alumni staff are also looking at ways to bridge the professional gap. They are facilitating several alumni volunteer opportunities—such as the
Alumni Career Consultants Program—to bring other kinds of immediate help to Albany Law School's student body.
Spring usually brings many admitted students to campus for Accepted Students Day. Instead, this year, the event had to be switched to a virtual format—a first for Albany Law School. It followed the same schedule as any other Accepted Students Day—chances to connect with deans, students, and alumni—and the turnout was notable.
The admissions department also worked with the communications and marketing office to develop a number of resources: prospective students can
take a video tour of the campus and the Capital Region, listen to short podcast interviews with current students, staff, and faculty, and connect with admissions staff through a new
"Visit Albany Law Virtually" online portal. Departments across campus are also collaborating on special virtual events for accepted students.
"We are adaptable and ready to meet all of our community members where they are, even under these extreme circumstances, as we continue to provide better opportunities and bigger impact," said Amy Mangione, Assistant Dean of Admissions.
Students—past, current, and future—are essential to Albany Law School. While the semester hasn't played out as expected, they have risen to the occasion in numerous ways.
"We've made some big decisions that students have had to grapple with. When we announced changes in the grading policy—they were pretty severe changes—the students were absolutely wonderful. They listened, they asked questions, and they acted like the professionals we are training them to be," Dean Ouellette said. "They are respectful and thoughtful. I think through the isolation we are finding moments of incredible community growth."