Instructional Format for the Fall Semester

Dean Lester provides an update to the community regarding the Law School’s planning process for Fall 2020 and answers a number of key questions.

Dear members of the Columbia Law School Community, 

Earlier today, President Bollinger announced the University’s intentions for the Fall 2020 semester, enumerating robust preventative and public health protocols. In his message, President Bollinger indicated that graduate and professional schools are adopting tailored plans to address the needs and constraints of our unique communities. This message provides an update on the Law School’s planning process and answers a number of key questions. Please read all the way to the end. 

What does this mean for the Law School?

I am pleased to say that the Law School will field a rich and typically robust curriculum of roughly 150 courses, doing so in a manner that fully reflects our commitment to pedagogical excellence. Our working plan, as outlined in my June 22 message, allows for a multi-modal instructional approach in which classes can be offered in one of three formats:

  • In-person classes where most, if not all, students are physically present during each class session in a classroom large enough to accommodate safe physical distancing
  • Online classes where both the instructor and students attend virtually  
  • Hybrid classes where at least one-third of students are able to be physically present in a classroom on a rotating basis, with the remaining students attending virtually

Our intention is for most instruction, including final exams, to move fully online following the Thanksgiving holiday, recognizing the need to further evaluate whether provision of in-person learning opportunities will be necessary for some students in order to fulfill the requirements of their educational programs. 

It is important to remember that the public health situation remains fluid. While we are doing all we can to preserve the possibility of in-person learning opportunities throughout the curriculum, the requirements that we reduce density in our buildings and maintain physical distancing combined with other factors, such as class size and instructor availability, will limit the number of courses that can be offered in person, and students should anticipate that many, if not most, of their classes will be conducted virtually.

Over the course of the summer, members of the Law faculty have been devoting themselves with energy and enthusiasm to honing their technology-enhanced classroom skills through intensive training in pedagogical techniques and training in the use of new, state-of-the art learning technologies. We are confident that we can offer a rewarding learning experience regardless of format.

The well-being of every member of our community is of paramount importance. No student or faculty member who does not wish to attend or teach classes in person will be required to do so. No matter the instructional format, and with only very few exceptions for certain elective courses, Law School classes will provide the option for students to attend synchronously from a remote location.

Why are we planning this approach? 

From the outset of the pandemic, and throughout the process of planning for the upcoming academic year, the University—and, by extension, the Law School—has been guided by two core principles: (1) to ensure the health and safety of every member of our community and (2) to provide an educational experience of the highest possible quality, which is core to our mission. We believe the plan that we have developed effectively achieves these priorities and provides flexibility for students and faculty who do not wish to come to campus. 

When will we know whether it is possible to return to campus? 

The State of New York has established public health criteria that must be met in order to progress through the phases of reopening. Currently, New York City is in the third of four phases, and higher education institutions are not permitted to resume in-person instruction until the City reaches Phase 4. As President Bollinger indicated, “If New York City has not entered Phase 4 by August 15, we will determine if it will be necessary to make changes to our fall term plans.”

What public health and safety measures will be in place?

The Law School will fully comply with all applicable State, and University-wide measures designed to protect the health and safety of the community, as well as visitors, while on campus. These protocols, which have been developed in consultation with leading public health experts, include:

  • Testing of all persons for COVID-19 upon returning to campus, followed by subsequent sampling of the campus population
  • Daily self-checks for symptoms and potential exposure via the ReopenCU App
  • A campus-wide contact tracing program
  • Mandatory wearing of face coverings
  • Observance of six-foot physical distancing except where it is impossible to do so
  • Reduction in density of students, faculty, and staff present in campus buildings, as well as limitations on in-person events and group gatherings
  • Enhanced cleaning and disinfection of classrooms, common areas, restrooms, and work spaces

In addition, we have begun to make a number of adjustments to the Law School physical plant, including installing touchless restroom fixtures, hand sanitizing stations, plexiglass barriers in select high-traffic areas, and signage to manage the flow of foot, stair, and elevator traffic. 

Achieving a return to in-person classes will require a commitment by all campus citizens to abide by the health and safety protocols adopted, including affirmation of the terms of the Community Health Compact. At the heart of the Compact is the ethos that each member of our community is responsible to abide by the campus public health and safety protocols not only to protect themselves, but also to protect others. 

How and when will I know which classes will be offered in which format?

We plan to publish the online Curriculum Guide before the end of July, labeling each course using one of the three formats listed above. Given the evolving nature of the pandemic and its impact on faculty ability to teach in person, it is possible that these designations will change. Students will receive more information about the course registration process and timeline once the curriculum guide is released.

How will the Law School continue to support students, including financial need? 

The Law School’s wide array of supportive services, including academic and career counseling, academic affairs, IT support, as well as mental health and wellness services, will continue to be available to students regardless of instructional format. 

Since the pandemic began, the Law School has made available emergency financial support through our Financial Wellness process to those students who experienced insecurity as a result of the global health crisis.

Looking ahead to the fall, I am pleased to announce that we will be putting in place two additional initiatives to ease student financial burden brought on by the pandemic. To ensure all of our students have the technology resources they need to effectively participate and take full advantage of the diversity of academic and co-curricular offerings, the Law School has established a Student Technology Equity Fund, which will provide $1,500 in scholarship aid to every student this year. 

In addition, recognizing the disproportionate financial effects experienced by some members of our student community, the Law School will increase scholarship aid by $1,500 for every student who has been previously awarded institutional grant aid, including our returning 2L and 3L students. For those currently not receiving institutional grants, a need-based process will be available to reevaluate eligibility for this supplemental award. Combined with the Student Technology Equity Fund, Law students with the greatest financial need will receive $3,000 in total grant aid, which will more than fully offset tuition growth. 

Will I be able to travel to campus? 

Students who require a visa in order to travel to the United States to attend classes should contact the International Students and Scholars Office for guidance, including about the updated guidelines for online education in Fall 2020 issued by the U.S. government on July 6. Please note that the University and Law School are still in the process of fully analyzing its implications, as well as what we can do to maximize the ability of our international students to fully realize the benefits of our educational programs. We will be in close contact with international students in the period ahead as we know more.

Individuals traveling from certain jurisdictions and states outside of New York may be subject to mandatory self-quarantine, based on public health regulations in place at the time of scheduled arrival. 

University-related travel for students, both domestic and international, remains suspended. This includes travel for study abroad and exchange programs facilitated by Columbia. 

Will there be flexibility in the terms of Columbia Residential housing? 

University housing will be available for all first-year J.D. students who apply. All students who have applied for housing within the Columbia Residential pool, including continuing students, can withdraw their applications until August 15 without financial penalty. In addition, even those attending classes fully online may take up residence in University housing.

Public health guidelines will necessitate changes to some residential buildings, including physical distancing in common areas where possible and reduced occupancy of certain units. See the Columbia Residential website for more information or contact [email protected].  

Where can I get additional information? 

The University’s COVID-19 Resource Guide continues to be updated with the most recent information. So, too, we will continue our ongoing efforts to communicate regularly, so please monitor your email and the Law School’s website.


I recognize that this message, even though it represents the most up-to-date information available to us, still falls short of providing all the clarity we all seek. The unavoidable reality—one I have confronted every single day since the pandemic began—is that each of us must make decisions, often consequential ones, with incomplete information. And many of the factors that will inform these decisions lie outside of our immediate control. 

We are excited to welcome you to a new academic year, whether in-person, virtually, or some of both. Circumstances will no doubt continue to change; the conditions on the ground are different today than they were two weeks ago, and they’ll be different still two weeks from now. But, even as we cannot anticipate all that is to come, it is up to us, as members of the Columbia Law School community, to remain steadfast, flexible, and resilient.  

Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, legal education and scholarship—and the public engagement that is so deep in the tradition of Columbia Law School—have a vitally important role to play in a year that includes a presidential election, as well as opportunities for collective learning and action, some of it long overdue, to address the social, political, racial, and economic challenges our country faces. We remain committed to fulfilling the core academic and public mission that has guided our great institution through turbulent times of centuries past, and will once again help us navigate the crises we face today.

With continued gratitude and best regards, 

Gillian Lester
Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law