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Vermont Law School Goes Virtual

April 6, 2020

In mid-March, Vermont Law School (VLS) made the tough-but-necessary decision to temporarily close campus, moving classes online for the rest of the semester. While no cases of the novel coronavirus had yet been detected in the South Royalton area, the school’s COVID-19 Task Force was meeting daily and closely following guidance from public health officials. “We made this decision after much deliberation and discussion, guided at all times by the commitment to protecting the health, well-being, and safety of our community members,” said Vice Dean Beth McCormack in an email to students.

Learning Online

Within days, staff, faculty, and students found themselves adjusting to the new normal: virtual VLS. Meetings moved to video chat. #VLSGoesVirtual selfies emerged featuring the adorable, the awkward, and the unexpected—from furry animal photo bombs, to unflattering angles, to a staff member in a Darth Vader mask. 

Students and staff working from home.

“Virtual VLS has been an adventure,” said Environmental Law Center Associate Director Anne Linehan. Since her off-the-grid home lacks internet, Linehan has been working from the bar at the microbrewery she owns with her husband. “When I’m advising students, they can read the beer menu over my shoulder.”

Professors are getting creative via video chat, too. As students log in to her Evidence course, Associate Dean Jennifer Rushlow plays a daily music video chosen by one of her colleagues. Professor John Miller asked his students to introduce their pets. Other faculty have hosted “Meet and Eat” virtual lunches, from “Movies and Munchies” with professors Pat Parenteau and Jonathan Rosenbloom, to “Learn to Make Maple Syrup” with Joe Brennan and Richard Sala. 

For the Community 

Of course, adjusting to a virtual learning environment is just one of many challenges VLS community members are facing: from isolation and childcare to concerns about health, safety, and finances, all layered with a law school workload. That’s why VLS launched the COVID-19 Hardship Fund. Students, faculty, and staff impacted by the coronavirus pandemic can apply for urgent financial assistance to cover various expenses, from food and housing to medical needs and technology to support online learning.          

With contributions to the fund coming from alumni, current and former trustees, faculty, staff, parents, friends, and even students, the outpouring of generosity is unparalleled. “I am incredibly proud of the way our entire community has come together to support one another during these challenging times,” said Vice President for Alumni Relations and Development Brooke Herndon. “This crisis has illustrated how kind and resilient the Vermont Law School family truly is.”

“We’ve also seen exactly how amazing the administration at VLS is,” said Alyson Hehr JD’20. “I’m so grateful to be at a school filled with patient, supportive, and genuinely kind faculty and staff. They’ve established such a great relationship with us over the years that we are comfortable coming to them with our struggles, which is so important right now.”

Hehr chairs the Mental Health Committee, which has also ramped up activities, hosting two confidential “Swan Support” group sessions a week, connecting students with free counseling sessions, hosting webinars with invited speakers on managing fear and anxiety, and overseeing a virtual meditation group. “We know digital interaction doesn’t replace physical interaction, but the more we lean on each other, the easier it is to bear the weight of isolation,” Hehr said.

Finding Balance

Virtual yoga classes have been another source of solace. Since VLS’s fitness center moved its free offerings online, Institute for Energy and the Environment program coordinator Molly Smith has broadcast her popular flow classes via Microsoft Teams. “Those hours we spent together on our mats on campus were valuable, but now that we’re all separated, I could not do without them,” Smith said.

“Teaching through ‘virtual VLS’ is a bit like bakasana (crow pose),” she added. “It’s challenging to get into, and requires lots of balance—but it invariably leads to laughter. By stretching, breathing, and laughing together, the VLS community grows even stronger and more resilient in times of change.”  

Follow #VLSgoesvirtual to see all the four-legged study buddies, WFH office setups, and more.