In the unprecedented pandemic year of 2020, the students, faculty and staff of the UConn School of Law found challenges, courage and a few precious silver linings.
The law school welcomed a new dean, Eboni S. Nelson, who was appointed in March, just before the COVID-19 virus forced the law school to close the campus. The disruption of the virus fostered determination as the faculty and staff, particularly Information Technology Services, pivoted to delivering classes through Webex and other online platforms.
“I feel like the whole law school stepped it up once we went remote to make sure we as students kept feeling heard and engaged,” said Paola Leiva ’21. “But so much of law school is being able to talk to your classmates and professors casually and organically, and that was gone.”
The semester had begun as usual with the first-year interterm course starting on January 11 and other classes beginning January 19. On February 6, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy ’02 visited the law school to hold an information session about the impeachment of President Trump, and on February 27 the Connecticut Supreme Court returned to the Reading Room in William F. Starr Hall for an on-circuit session.
In February, the law school community joined in mourning Hugh Macgill, dean from 1990 to 2000, who died on February 13.
And then, with the global pandemic building, students, staff and faculty learned just days before spring break began that they would not return to campus when classes resumed on March 23.
For Professor Kiel Brennan-Marquez, who welcomed his first child on February 8, the pandemic made what would have been a strange semester even weirder.
“Those two events by themselves would have been insane but together it was chaos,” Brennan-Marquez said. “But at the same time, it wasn’t too hard to be in isolation with a newborn because that’s what you would be doing anyway.”
Brennan-Marquez’s class had begun several weeks late to accommodate time with his new daughter, Tal. He had only taught a third of his Constitutional Law course when remote learning began.
“I’m a very visual teacher and I always wrote on the board a lot and I think that method has helped me keep students engaged over the computer,” Brennan-Marquez said. “But it’s hard not to be able to look around the classroom and be able to tell from their faces whether students have really gotten a concept or whether I need to give another example.”
In addition to forcing a change in the medium of instruction, the pandemic made UConn Law’s usual commencement exercises impossible. With the live ceremony indefinitely postponed, the Class of 2020 was celebrated with a video appreciation on May 17.
Even before Nelson took office on July 31, she was engaged with the law school leadership in planning for the fall semester. The decision to continue with online-only instruction was announced July 1.
A virtual orientation began August 26 and classes started August 31. Many students, including members of the incoming 1L class, decided to continue living where they were. Others chose to move close to the law school. Christa Calabretta ’23, moved from her home in New York state to West Hartford, Connecticut.
“Although my first semester of law school was not what I had anticipated when I first applied, I would not change a thing,” she said. “I feel like being pushed out of my comfort zone made me really grow in terms of reaching out to people and networking comfortably.”
On October 5 and 6, many of UConn Law’s recent graduates sat for the Connecticut Bar Exam, twice postponed from July. The unprecedented remote, online exam followed months of controversy over the format with calls to waive it entirely.
At the law school, events originally scheduled for the elegant Reading Room were transformed to fit virtual platforms. On October 9, the Connecticut Law Review conducted its first entirely remote symposium on the topic “Empires or Umpires? Political Questions, Separation of Powers, and Judicial Legitimacy.” On October 15, the law school hosted a panel of experts who discussed justice and accountability following police shootings. The event was moderated by Nelson and Professor Jamelia Morgan was a panelist.
After the Thanksgiving weekend, on November 30, the Thomas J. Meskill Law Library began a phased reopening to provide individual study spaces for students during the exam period.
“This has been a year of great change that has tested us all in new and complicated ways, and yet it has been an honor and a pleasure for me to join the vibrant, compassionate community that is the UConn School of Law,” Nelson said. “I am so proud of the ways everyone in this community has supported one another as we have responded to the pandemic together, and I’m excited and optimistic about the great things we can accomplish together in 2021.”
As students settle in for winter break, most know they will not return to campus for in-person classes during the spring semester. Plans are for only a few small seminars to be held on campus; all other instruction will continue online. But hope for Fall 2021 grows with an expanding vaccination program and a sense that the worse will soon be behind us.
“It has been a really hard, painful year in so many ways that are so real to many of us,” Leiva said. “I’m so proud of the way this community has been there for each other and just made it through this insanity.”