Law Campus Returning to Life, Gradually and Carefully

After nearly a year with the campus almost entirely closed, the law school edges back toward a new normal.

Library Assistant Jennine Kottwitz checks out a book

Jennine Kottwitz checks out a book for Library2Go at the Thomas J. Meskill Law Library at the UConn School of Law in Hartford. The library has been gradually reopening to students, faculty and staff under careful health and safety protocols as a few in-person classes have begun for the spring semester. (Justin Rogowski photo)

As vaccinations open a path back to normalcy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the UConn School of Law has taken cautious steps toward slowly reopening the campus.

For the first time since March 2020, in-person classes are being held at the law school. Lisa Rodino, the school’s registrar, said that four of the 111 classes offered this semester are meeting on campus. All in-person classes are being held in the library.

Associate Dean Darcy Kirk, who is teaching a faculty-guided, hybrid writing seminar every Wednesday, said the adjustment to teaching in a hybrid format has been challenging.

“I have three students in the classroom and then three more attending class virtually,” Kirk said. “I realized I barely looked at the virtual students during the first class, but I feel like I’m getting the hang of it a little more now.”

Johanna Leutnant is one of the three students taking Kirk’s class in person. Leutnant, who is pursuing an LLM in Human Rights and Social Justice, studied remotely last semester.

“As an international student, it is special for me to finally be on campus after I studied the last semester online while still being in Germany,” Leutnant said. “The communication with the professor and the other classmates really is different when you are in the same room together and do not have to unmute yourself before you speak.”

For Hannah Kogan ’21, also an in-person participant in Kirk’s class, the return to campus classes has catalyzed her to engage more in class than she ever had before.

“The biggest difference for me is that I am much more engaged with the class, the materials and class discussion when in-person,” Kogan said.” As a 3L graduating this spring, it truly is bittersweet, and I am thankful that I was able to take one last class at UConn Law on campus.”

After a limited reopening of the Thomas J. Meskill Law Library in November 2020 during the exam study period, the gradual return to in-person operations continues this semester. The library is open only to students, faculty and staff, and reservations are required for study space. While all reference staff continue to work from home, some other library staff members have returned to work on site.

Jessica Panella, head of access and administrative services at the library, said there are now six staff members working daily in the library building and eight others who rotate through.

“It feels like a bit of a ghost town in my office some days,” Panella said. “We’re all used to this campus being such a communal, open space that the necessary health precautions make it feel like a new place sometimes.”

She and her staff have continued to note the importance of all library users following the mandated health and safety protocols, including wearing masks at all times in the library.

“More than anything else, it feels so amazing to see these students in the flesh again,” Panella said. “Sometimes I find myself just hovering around them because I’m so excited by their energy.”

In addition to classes and the library, clinics have resumed more normal operations. Paul Chill, associate dean for experiential education, said all scheduled clinics and field placements — including those in Washington, D.C. — are continuing, in various hybrid formats.

Professor Jessica Rubin, director of the Animal Law Clinic, said she and her students have adapted in the pandemic world. She holds virtual clinic meetings, but she and her three students have already been to court in person several times this semester.

“We’ve been to three different courts across Connecticut this semester,” Rubin said. “Each of them has different virus protocols, and the students have done well juggling that on top of normal clinical obligations.”

Kaylee Navarra ‘22 said participating in the Animal Law Clinic – and going to court for it – has been especially rewarding at a time when so many other things aren’t functioning normally.

“Having the opportunity to give an oral argument in court, even while wearing a mask, and helping to ensure that justice has been served on behalf of animals, has been a highlight of my legal education so far,” Navarra said.

As efforts to contain and combat the virus continue, plans for the future continue to develop. Assistant Dean Karen DeMeola said that while the law school is planning for a “normal” Fall 2021 semester, public health concerns and state guidelines will continue to shape decisions.

That uncertainty has been hard for students, Assistant Director of Student Services Caitlin Dougherty, said. Many students have wondered whether to move closer to campus anticipating an in-person semester or wait until the future is clearer.

Matthew Fratamico ‘22 said he has settled well into the routine of virtual learning, but he looks forward to returning to campus in person and hopes his 2022 commencement will be celebrated on campus.

“When we first went remote things were clunky and nobody really knew what was going on,” Fratamico said. “But it’s been really great to see how professors have adapted their teaching methods, and I’m very optimistic about this semester.”

Dean Eboni S. Nelson shares that optimism. “I continue to be in awe of the resilience, adaptability, and perseverance that our students, faculty, and staff demonstrate on a daily basis,” she said. “Due to our supportive law school community, we have successfully weathered what we hope has been the worst of the storm, and we look forward to brighter days ahead when more of us can return to our beloved campus.”