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Fears, predictions, confidence, heading back to school

Wednesday, September 02, 2020 @ 9:12 AM | By Ryan Deshpande

Ryan Deshpande %>
Ryan Deshpande
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about dramatic changes to our lives. As I enter my third year as a JD student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, I am mixed with feelings of anxiety and hope.

From administration to course delivery, law students, faculty and staff are coming together to change an institution well-known for its usual immutability. The pandemic also coincided with global protests against anti-Black racism and police violence that are causing changes in many legal institutions.

In mid-March of 2020, as the provincial emergency orders encouraged everyone to self-isolate, our U of T courses switched to an online format for the remainder of the term. Over the summer, the Faculty of Law grappled with what to do for the upcoming school year.

For example, U of T cancelled all exchange programs for the fall term. Because of this cancellation, the Faculty of Law has to now accommodate over 60 students who otherwise would have attended school elsewhere for one term, myself included.

Ultimately, all students were given the choice of attending as an “in-person” student or an “online” student. Those who chose the latter option would only have access to online courses. Most classes have both an in-person and online section, while some are offered exclusively online.

After deep reflection, I chose to register as an in-person student. I grappled with many considerations. As an online student, I could socially isolate all term and would thus have less chances of potentially getting myself or others sick.

But, the switch to online classes was challenging. If March and April were any indicator, I knew my learning would be severely impeded if all my classes were to be completed virtually.

Having moved back home with my parents, my family life had also become ever more prevalent. Though my family is supportive of my academics, quarantining together had added a barrier to my learning.

As I am also heavily involved in law school extracurricular activities, I was further restricted since much of our work occurs in person. Finally, some of the clinical courses I hoped to register in for the new academic year were offered exclusively in person.

I struck a balance in the end. While I am registered in person, some of my classes are online. Additionally, I found a new apartment where I can now walk to school.

While I don’t regret my choice at this point, the future’s uncertainty brings a lot of anxiety. We are faced with a probable scenario in which a second wave of COVID-19 will come and we’ll have to self-isolate again. If that were to happen, all of our classes would switch back to online formats once more.

I worry about the quality of my learning. I also worry about the clients of our school’s legal clinics, many of whom are low-income individuals who rely on law students for pro bono assistance. If law school becomes mostly virtual once more, our clinics will likely shut down again. Moreover, I worry about whether it was wise to move back to Toronto in the end, and whether I would have been better off overall registering as an online student.

This (natural) anxiety remains mixed with feelings of hope. I remind myself that my undergraduate degree was in biochemistry, so I have some knowledge of infectious diseases. I am attuned to the ways I can minimize the risk I pose to others. I am also encouraged by how both law schools and the profession overall have modernized so quickly in response to the pandemic.

In many ways, we are all adjusting to our “new normal.” The law school’s administration is not immune to this. I also take a lot of comfort in my fellow U of T law students because of how we have banded together and supported one another. From March to May of 2020, law students at U of T advocated together for our collective interest, while prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable among us. I know if the need for us to self-isolate arises again, we will certainly be there for one another. We are also finding new ways to build virtual community.

I am also hopeful that as many societal institutions change in response to the pandemic, they will also change in response to our collective reckoning with anti-Black racism. As a racialized student in an ever-changing environment, this remains on my mind as I resume law school.

Accordingly, I do have some suggestions too. I believe all Ontario law schools need to be more flexible with their students. Attendance policies should be relaxed, and onerous documentation should not be required if students have to miss in-person course requirements or switch to online learning for part of the term. None of us knows what the future may bring, nor do we know how the school year may impact different students disparately.

At the end of the day, I am grateful to be continuing my legal education and approach the new academic year with cautious hope. Whatever may happen, the most I can do is try to be prepared, and do my best nonetheless to succeed.

Ryan Deshpande is a 3L at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He volunteers with the Students’ Law Society and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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