Pandemic pivots

Assemble a dream team to write the operations guide for “business as usual” during a pandemic, and you’d be wise to recruit a few legal minds. You need strategy. Procedure. Critical assessment of risk. Accommodations for special cases.

Andrea Mongia

Emory Law pivoted quickly under the pressures of the pandemic to continue serving students, faculty, and alumni. 

One might expect that emergency-measure strategies get shelved once normal operations resume. But Emory Law knows better. A few strategies didn’t just keep the school’s heart monitor humming; they illuminated a new path forward at the enterprise level, in the classroom, and for alumni outreach. Moving events and classes to a virtual platform increased engagement and participation. Treating the Emory community holistically — and within the context of what was happening universally and individually — yielded historically high academic success and fostered more productive teams, greater camaraderie. These strategies are getting Emory through crisis. And these strategies will build our future. 

Vice Dean and Thomas Simmons Professor of Law Tim Holbrook recalls conversations that happened in 2020 — conversations about closing the university and extending spring break. Work, meetings, near-term events: everything shifted to remote or was canceled. In the summer, “The Office of the Provost, in partnership with other units, began to assess how to restart various elements of the university, especially our faculty research,” he says. “We developed safety protocols to allow some of those spaces to reopen at reduced density.” The entire university is committed to performing contact tracing and enforcing quarantine, while also “ensur[ing] the academic continuity of students” in isolation. 

There is no replacement for students or faculty being in a classroom, even if safety dictates a period of isolation. “In-person classes are a vital component of legal education,” says Holbrook, and he notes that the American Bar Association places limits on remote learning (though the ABA is also taking cues from the pandemic and re-evaluating how many credits may be earned through online classes). Though online learning may be necessary as the world continues to grapple with COVID setbacks, there are important nuances lost in the medium of Zoom. Holbrook describes the challenge of observing non-verbal social cues virtually. “Those subtle signals can often be important in the classroom to gauge if the class is understanding the material,” he says. However, he suggests that the medium can level the playing field. “Some students have felt it easier to engage on Zoom. The chat function can also empower some students who may be uncomfortable discussing something verbally, but they can engage through written comments and questions. I hope professors can find ways to facilitate that inclusive dynamic outside of Zoom,” Holbrook says. 

Looking for the silver lining of Zoom is only one of Holbrook’s pandemic coping strategies. 

For another, “I have always tried to prioritize the people in my office over the tasks. If I take care of my team as persons, they will perform the tasks that are needed.” Holbrook says proudly that he saw how committed and resilient his team could be and that he has “the utmost confidence that we can pivot quickly to remote activity and still be successful in fulfilling the mission of my office.” 

Within the realm of what’s possible — and safe — Emory Law is intent on keeping students in the classroom. Precautions set in place before the return to campus, like masking and discontinuing eating and drinking inside buildings, may cause minor annoyance on campus, but Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Joanna Shepherd 01G 02G says, “I think these precautions were necessary so we could gather safely in classrooms. All students were generally required to attend classes in-person. The only exceptions were students with an ADA accommodation or students who had symptoms or had to isolate for COVID-related reasons.” She underscores Holbrook’s statements about the pain points of Zoom classes. “The biggest challenge is keeping students focused... for 90 minutes, especially when there are so many [faces] that you can’t see them all on one Zoom screen,” Shepherd says. 

Even so, no student became truly faceless or underserved during the pandemic. In fact, students thrived. “Our summer bar pass rate for first-time test takers was higher in 2020 than it had been for the previous eight years,” says Shepherd. For students who met various challenges during the pandemic, “Emory assisted by providing online academic support programs, computer and technological equipment, quiet test space (both in and out of Georgia) for bar exams, and financial assistance,” Shepherd adds. 

Even with social distancing, staggered office schedules and virtual meetings creating space between people, Emory didn’t lose its human touch. 

Shepherd says she has “gained a new appreciation for the Emory community” and gives examples of “small kindnesses” she witnessed during the pandemic. There was a professor who lent rent money to a student who had lost a job, as well as a student “who visited a professor’s office hours because he could tell the professor was lonely.” 

Preserving the human connection between Emory Law and alumni isn’t just a pandemic goal: it is the primary objective of Associate Dean Courtney Stombock and the Office of Advancement and Alumni Engagement. The office went remote in mid-March 2020 and postponed its flagship event, Emory Law Alumni Weekend, scheduled for April 2020. “By summer of 2020, we canceled any events that were not conducive to video conference, including the alumni weekend,” Stombock says. To serve immediate needs, the office launched a “new series of panel discussions and networking sessions with alumni and students to help support admissions in recruiting the fall 2020 incoming class, and support those graduates seeking career opportunities amidst the pandemic.” The sessions were well-attended and attracted alumni who would not have been able to participate in an on-campus format. An iteration of the flagship event went virtual, too, with online programming and an interactive website where alumni could share videos and photos, and reconnect with classmates from the past 60 years. 

Since August 2021, the alumni engagement team has returned to campus twice a week, and small in-person events are back on the calendar. 

“Alumni who can’t or won’t travel can be included through continued virtual or hybrid event options,” says Stombock, and for all future in-person events, “the team will think carefully about strategic objectives, crowd size, technological functionality and necessity.” 

The office is energized by its pandemic-period discovery that alumni could be very active when given the chance to participate virtually. Stombock notes that Emory Law was mindful of “allow[ing] alumni and donors the space and time to share what they were experiencing and how they wanted to be engaged during [the pandemic].” 

It is a necessary concession to engage with colleagues and peers within the context of their pandemic experience. Nuances of expression might be lost in a Zoom discussion, but so much more is on display. A child snacking in the background. A mewling cat on someone’s lap. The muffled soundtrack of a partner’s own Zoom meeting across the room. In recognizing the humanity of its diverse community, Emory Law emerges stronger. 

Email the Editor

Share This Story