Focus On
Donna Young photo credit Mitch Wojnarowicz_sm

Building law school from ‘our kitchen tables,’ Ryerson dean says as plans to open proceed

Tuesday, June 02, 2020 @ 9:06 AM | By Amanda Jerome


Whether it be through online learning or in-person classrooms, Ryerson’s new Faculty of Law is on track to open on Sept. 2, said the school’s dean, Donna Young.

“People ask me ‘what’s it like building a law school during the global pandemic?’ and I have to say, ‘we’re doing it.’ We have a really strong team and we’re doing it from our kitchen tables, and our home offices, and we’re doing it from other countries, but we’re doing it and we’re really excited about it,” she said.

Donna Young, dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Law

Young told The Lawyer’s Daily that the school has settled on a curriculum but has made a few changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We reduced the class sizes to facilitate more interaction between faculty and students. We haven’t made any decisions about the delivery of the curriculum because we’re still waiting to see what the health department tells us, but we are planning for both online and on campus components of the curriculum,” she said, noting that the school will take advantage to whatever extent possible to facilitate in-person learning.

“That might mean holding smaller classes, simultaneously having an online component or remote component for those who can’t make it to campus, or, if the situation dictates, we might have to go completely online. And in either case, we’re ramping up plans for training faculty and supporting their needs to teach their courses online and we’re convinced we can offer an excellent program with all the innovations that were built into the proposals to begin with. We can deliver no matter what delivery model we choose,” she added.

Young acknowledged that the physical space for the law school is still under renovation. She said there was a “slowdown when the Ontario government stopped construction.” She said the delay lasted about three weeks and pushed back work, but that the school is still on target to open in the fall.

“Because we’re on target with that, we’re really hoping that no matter what we have to do in terms of our curriculum delivery, that we will be able to use the facilities in some way. So even if we have to go completely remotely, we will be able to bring students on to campus so that we can meet with them in smaller groups,” she explained, adding that she is dedicated to “using any opportunity we have to meet physically with our students as much as possible so they can get to know their faculty members and vice versa.”

Even though Young is hopeful that in-class learning will be possible, she stressed that the school is still planning for online delivery of the curriculum so that students who can’t attend will still be able to learn.

“No matter what we do, we’re going to have that remote access that we’re building up, so we can deliver the program to any student who might not be able to make it to campus,” she added.

Young said her biggest concern is that “whether or not someone is able to get to campus, the program is equitable.”

“There will be the same supports for students who can’t make it to campus as those who can make it to campus,” she explained.

As for preparing for on-campus learning, Young said the school is “waiting for guidance from the government and from the university,” but is already preparing and planning for protocols to enable social distancing.

She said this includes “distancing of desks, cleaning protocols between classes, increased staff to facilitate the movement between classes, maybe offering classes with gaps in between so we can get in there and clean in between, hand sanitizers, or if the government says masks should be worn the university will do that and will facilitate that, cleaning supplies, pathways in the hallways, bathroom protocols, elevator protocols [and] stairwell protocols.”

Young noted that the “one thing” Ryerson’s Faculty of Law has in its favour is it’s only expecting one year of 150 students to start in the fall, unlike other law schools, which will be planning for a full three years’ worth of students.

“We only have to try and figure out what to do with our 150 students. We have a smaller faculty,” she said, noting that Ryerson’s Faculty of Law can be “a little bit more nimble than other programs might be able to.”

“We’re going to see what the provincial guidelines are and we’re going to see whether or not [on-campus instruction] is feasible, and whatever we do, I just don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize anyone’s health,” she added, stressing that the school has already measured classrooms and reduced class sizes “in anticipation for social distancing.”

Young has been keeping prospective students up to date via e-mail and keeping them in touch with the school’s community through online events.

“Over the summer, we’re planning a series of events to keep them engaged. The first one is going to be an alumni panel. These are Ryerson University alumni who have become lawyers and they’re going to be discussing with prospective students ‘what I wish I had known before law school,’ ” she said.

The law school was established with four pillars for its curriculum, including technology; equity, diversity and inclusion; access to justice and strong academics.

Young said the pandemic has buttressed the school’s pillar on technology and how it’s used in the law and serving the community.

“It’s interesting that before the pandemic it really wouldn’t have occurred to us to say that classes have to be taught remotely. That was not going to be part of it, but you need the technology, you need the technological savvy in order to do that,” she said, noting that the pandemic has emphasized the “importance of one of our pillars, which is technological skill and advancement.”

Young has been meeting with other Ontario law deans every week as well as with law deans across the country and she said everyone is supporting each other and sharing ideas as the pandemic continues.

“We are moving full steam ahead with the program,” she stressed, adding that “to a certain extent we have to wait, like all universities, to figure out how the curriculum will be delivered, but we’re not waiting to hear, we’re planning for remote teaching and on-campus teaching.”

Other schools with faculties of law, such as the University of Toronto and York University, are also planning for a fall semester which facilitates online learning.

According to a statement from the University of Toronto’s president, Meric Gertler, “plans are being developed for a fall term that mixes smaller, on-campus courses, seminars, labs and experiential learning, with larger online and remote courses and lectures.”

An update from York University stated that classes for the 2020-2021 academic year “will begin in September even if courses need to be delivered wholly or partially through online/remote instruction.”

Photo of Donna Young by Mitch Wojnarowicz 

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact Amanda Jerome at Amanda.Jerome@lexisnexis.ca or call 416-524-2152.