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Dear HLS Students,

I write today to update you on our plans for Winter and Spring Terms 2021. Though we had very much hoped to be able to resume teaching and learning on campus, we have with great disappointment concluded that it is neither prudent nor equitable for us to resume in-person instruction. We miss seeing you all in person tremendously. And we understand and regret that today’s decision will land hard with many of you. We did not come to it lightly. After dedicated teams of faculty and staff conducted extensive fact-gathering, careful analysis of alternatives, and consideration of input from students, faculty, staff, and public health experts, the choice, though difficult, was for several reasons clear.

First, our foremost consideration is keeping our community safe amidst growing uncertainties surrounding the pandemic’s trajectory. Alongside a resurgence of COVID-19 internationally, the U.S. is now experiencing its third spike in COVID-19 cases since March, and cases have recently been on the rise in Massachusetts, as more communities in and around Boston and the eastern half of the Commonwealth have been deemed high risk. With large unanswered questions about the impact of cold weather on the virus’ transmission and the potential interaction of COVID-19 with seasonal flu, we believe that the risks and uncertainties associated with the pandemic in the Winter and Spring Terms are simply too great to justify a significant return of students, staff, and faculty to campus.

Second, what we have learned this fall is that our faculty have found creative and effective ways to adapt online practices to the distinctive pedagogy of law school; that our students have been present and engaged in the classroom and clinical experience; and that classes and clinics are generally going well. After broad consultation at HLS and with colleagues at other schools, we have concluded that pedagogical considerations not only justify, but favor, the continuation of online instruction at present. In making the decision we are sharing today, we exhaustively considered all aspects of offering classes on the HLS campus under current public health regulations and best practices, including CDC and state guidance for required physical distance. Under applicable constraints, the alternative to online instruction is not, as we all would wish, in-person instruction, but rather a form of hybrid learning. For example, in a typical Socratic class, only a fraction of the students could be present in the classroom on any given day; others would have to participate remotely from home; and both the teacher and in-person students would be required to wear masks, hindering the ability of everyone, especially those participating from home, to hear what is being said and to read expressions in a way that would contribute nonverbal communication to classroom dialogue. Even for small-class experiences, moreover, we concluded that hybrid learning does not capture the benefits of either fully in-person or fully online instruction.

Third, and as important, we believe that considerations of equity strongly favor continuing with online instruction. Hybrid classes differentiate the educational experience among students not only on any given day, but also across the semester. Such classes are not equally accessible to students who come from countries subject to a travel ban, who face other difficulties securing visas, who have family or personal obligations or challenges that compel them to remain where they are now, or who suffer from underlying conditions that place them at high risk of serious illness should they contract COVID-19. Especially given the nature of our pedagogy, it seemed to us problematic to create a tiered experience in which only some of our community could engage in the forms of classroom instruction being offered.

In short, given the range of imperfect options before us, we have concluded that it is best for faculty to continue to focus on delivering the best online academic program possible to all students equally, rather than moving to hybrid courses that, given the public health constraints, treat students differently without any assurance of providing a superior learning experience.

While we recognize that the public health situation may change between now and the new year, and we of course very much hope that scientific developments will allow greater in-person activity very soon, we also recognize that students, staff, and faculty must have sufficient time to make appropriate plans for the remainder of the school year. We know that this decision will be disappointing to many and, as we’ve said before, we remain committed to resuming in-person instruction and regular campus life when it is safe and feasible to do so. In the meantime, please know that in the weeks ahead, we will continue to listen and solicit feedback as we find ways to improve the online experience and to mitigate the challenges that some students have reported this fall. Reflecting some of your feedback to date, we are launching a number of new initiatives and continuing several others, including:

  • Creating, this spring, as we did this fall, new courses in time-zone friendly teaching blocks for students in remote time zones.
  • Providing additional opportunities for small group interactions with teachers and fellow students through:
    • The creation of opportunities for new HLS students (1Ls, transfer students, and LL.Ms) to get to know faculty and one another through a series of spring Reading Groups modeled on the 1L reading groups;
    • The establishment of Writing Groups that will give upper-level students (2Ls, 3Ls, and LL.Ms) the chance to work in small groups with a professor and peers to develop, write, and workshop student papers;
    • Resumption of student-faculty coffee and student-faculty lunch opportunities (in an online format), with food paid for by the Law School;
    • Continuation of enhanced support for additional Teaching Fellow positions.
  • Making available new on-campus housing options for students who have encountered unexpected challenges pursuing an online education in their home environments.
  • Providing emergency dependent care support for students.
  • Renewing support to those eligible for the Technology Assistance Fund and expanding covered equipment expenses to include standing desks, ergonomic chairs, and other academic-related supplies.
  • Providing a stipend for textbook shipping expenses for international students.
  • Providing student funding to cover the cost of printing course packs during the period of remote learning.
  • Streamlining the recording request process to cut the time required for requesting a class recording for personal or medical emergencies from three days to three hours in most instances.

In addition, mindful of the fact that, because of the pandemic, many students will be unable to be on campus their final year here or, in the case of LL.Ms, their entire time at HLS, we will also be consulting with students, staff, and faculty in the weeks ahead to identify creative ways to bring Class of 2021 students back to campus, when the pandemic abates, to spend meaningful time with classmates, friends, and teachers.

Knowing there will inevitably be many questions that arise for each of you, we’ve updated our Academic Year 2020-2021 FAQs to provide as much information as possible. We will continue to add new information as more details are developed. Our Student Services offices are also available to consult with students about their individual circumstances. Contact information and office hours can be found here.

We understand that, for a variety of reasons, another semester of online learning may not be optimal for some of you. To ensure that every student has sufficient time to consider this important question, we are extending the leave of absence deadline for Winter Term and Spring Term leaves to December 1, 2020. (The form for requesting a leave is available here.) We encourage anyone who may be considering a leave to reach out to one of our Student Services offices for additional information and support.

This has been a challenging year for everyone at HLS and around the globe. The circumstances that each of you has faced vary greatly, and we know that adapting to the changes required by this pandemic has been difficult. If you are struggling and in need of support, please reach out to the Dean of Students Office or the Counseling and Mental Health Services at HUHS. Please know that we are here for you.

Please also know that we are fully committed, as always, to providing you with an exceptional education and to working together to build an inclusive community of learning and service. In this time of great difficulty, I am grateful to be part of this dedicated and remarkable community. We may be physically separated at present, but we remain united in our shared educational mission and in the common purpose of finding new solutions to serious and deeply rooted problems that excellent lawyers can and must help solve. We look forward to teaching, learning from, and working with you in the months ahead.

Be well.

All best,
John Manning