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Dear HLS Students,

I write to update you on our plans for Fall Term 2020. We have all hoped these past few months that the upcoming academic year could begin, at least in part, on campus. However, in light of the daily news about the continuing health risks of the pandemic, advice from public health experts, and the very real concern that testing will not yet be available on the scale or frequency needed to adequately monitor COVID-19-related illness in the Harvard community, we have found it necessary to conclude that Fall Term 2020 will be online.

This is not the announcement we’d hoped to make. But our first priority is, and must continue to be, the health and safety of our community, and we cannot reliably conclude at this time that we can safely provide an effective on-campus program this fall. We recognize that the public health situation may evolve between now and the end of August, and we dearly hope, as everyone does, that scientific developments with respect to COVID-19 will allow greater in-person activity, here and elsewhere, very soon. We also recognize, however, that you must be able to make appropriate plans for the coming semester and year, and that we owe it to you to communicate a decision sufficiently far in advance to enable you to do so. So, while we will keep you apprised as we learn more, we must now turn our focus fully to developing the best, most robust, highest-quality online academic, clinical, and extracurricular programming we can for the coming term.

We look forward to teaching – and learning from – you and to forming with you, as we do each year, an active and engaged community of learning and service. The Harvard Law School faculty is already hard at work adapting their teaching plans in order to offer the best online courses and clinics possible. In order to be prepared in the event it proved necessary again to teach and learn online, we have been busy, in recent weeks, studying and absorbing the latest research about how students best learn online and identifying the range of tools, techniques, and approaches that create excellent, engaging online courses. And we have extensively surveyed our faculty and (as you know) our students to gain insights from last spring’s online teaching experience, with an eye toward tailoring best practices in online learning to the distinctive pedagogy of the law school classroom. We have also learned from last spring’s experience that our clinics can successfully design and offer compelling, meaningful online opportunities for learning and for service to communities in need. It is an exciting process, with much to be learned and much new to try in our virtual classrooms and clinics. I’m inspired by the creativity and dedication with which faculty are planning for the fall as we work to nurture a vibrant, connected online community.

We also have been working to identify and develop channels for creating meaningful interactions and connections outside the classroom and for supporting the extracurriculars that are an integral part of your law school experience. As part of this programming, we are creating additional opportunities for advising and career planning, as well as a robust set of online events. We look forward to engaging student organization leadership in the coming weeks to learn more about – and to find ways we can support – their plans for fostering student engagement in the coming year. For incoming students, we are planning comprehensive orientation programs, with a particular focus on small group meetings so that you can get to know your classmates and our staff and faculty better before the term begins. Incoming JD students will have the opportunity to meet your section leaders and classmates not only during orientation, but in small groups beforehand, and LL.M students will be able to connect with classmates, Graduate Program leadership, and faculty members prior to the start of the term.

With the news that Fall Term 2020 will be online, you will have many specific questions about what to expect. Given rapidly changing circumstances, we will not be able to answer all of these questions here, but hope that these FAQs will begin to answer many of the most important ones. We very much want to learn more about the concerns you may have, and the circumstances you may face, as you prepare for the months ahead – including where you are, or are likely to be, physically located in the fall and which of your specific questions we have not yet addressed. To that end, we will soon circulate a brief survey that will help us as we plan an engaging and enriching fall program and as we advise you about how to navigate the educational challenges created by this pandemic. We will ask that you please respond by 5:00 p.m. Friday, June 5, so that we can take your specific questions into account in our planning. We will continue to update the FAQs as we learn more in the days and weeks ahead.

In the meantime, we are working hard to address the fact that the shift to a full semester of online learning will pose particular challenges for some – for example, those who face difficult learning environments at home, those who have technological challenges, or those in time zones remote from that of Cambridge who may find it difficult to participate in classes in real-time, as is required by the active-learning approach to law school pedagogy. We are seeking ways to mitigate those challenges, for example, by supplementing existing grant aid with the development of a new Technology Assistance Fund that will provide up to $1 million to help our students address technological obstacles to participating fully in online learning; by giving priority in the allocation of limited HLS dormitory housing to those facing technological or other circumstances that make it difficult to engage in online learning at home; and by working to identify, if possible, ways to increase the courses available in time slots that are easier for students in remote time zones.

We realize that, for a variety of reasons, an online learning experience may not be optimal for all of you and that international students, in particular, may face some unexpected challenges relating to travel and to visa status this coming year. Accordingly, we will offer an additional deferral period for our newly admitted JD and LL.M students. The new period will run from June 15 through June 19. We will also extend from June 15 to June 19 the deadline for returning students to opt for a fall-semester or full-year leave during Academic Year 2020-2021. To help you make your decision, our faculty and student services staff will be available to advise you. We will also continue to update our FAQs as we learn more. We very much hope that you choose to remain in what we expect to be an exciting and enriching online academic and social program. But we want to be sure that you have a fair opportunity to make a decision that is right for you based on the best information we can provide you at this time.

Last spring, we had to adapt quickly to new formats and unexpected locations for learning and teaching. The fact that this unprecedented transformation was achieved with so little time to plan was a testament to our community. I am grateful to everyone – our students, faculty, and staff – for all they did to create an effective and enriching learning experience in challenging circumstances. This coming semester, though, asks something different of us – to use technology to design even more creative, exciting, and excellent experiences in support of learning, building community, and engaging in the service that helps those most in need and that is fundamental to the work lawyers do. This is our work now, as we take this next important step together. I look forward to working with all in this extraordinary community as we embrace new opportunities and challenges.

John Manning