After mounting pressure from politicians and thousands of law students, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Wednesday afternoon that the Florida bar exam will shift to an online format due to rising COVID-19 cases.
(TNS) — After mounting pressure from politicians and thousands of law students, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Wednesday afternoon that the Florida bar exam will shift to an online format due to rising COVID-19 cases.
The move online is a first for the exam, well known for its extreme difficulty.
In addition, the July exam, which was to be taken in either Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center or the Tampa Convention Center, will now be administered on Aug. 18, according to the Florida Supreme Court.
Over 1,200 law students from all over Florida were expected to take the exam at the end of the month at one of the two test sites, despite COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in the Sunshine State.
On May 5, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners declared that the July test would carry on as scheduled; the plan for which was based on available information from the Florida Department of Health. That press release was sent at a time when coronavirus cases were decreasing. According to the release, the test would be administered with safety protocols such as social distancing, the mandatory use of face masks, and a questionnaire and temperature checks upon arrival.
Many students online felt the doard’s measures weren’t enough to keep them safe and that the board was not seriously considering the risks immune-system-compromised students faced. However, the board apparently took the crisis seriously enough in regards to its administrative staff. A visit to the board’s website shows a red bulletin at the top of its homepage features a message to visitors: “Based on the latest COVID-19 status, the board’s office, but not the lobby of the board’s office, is open on a limited basis.”
A month after the board declared the test was still on, June case numbers in Florida began not only increasing but also breaking records. Last week, the Florida Department of Health reported 9,585 new coronavirus cases Saturday, shattering the previous daily high for positive COVID-19 infections made just the day before.
As of Wednesday, Florida has registered 158,997 positive cases and 3,550 deaths.
Orlando Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith wrote a letter Tuesday to the Florida Supreme Court seeking a change to the July test amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Urban centers in Florida such as Tampa and Orlando have also experienced a recent jump in new cases,” Smith said. “CNN recently reported that Florida is showing signs of becoming the ‘next epicenter of the national health crisis.' Now is not the time to convene thousands of Floridians and out-of-state examinees in two indoor locations for several days of in-person examinations.”
Law students also voiced their concerns in online threads and even started dozens of petitions on Change.org pleading with the board to seek alternative options.
Among the suggestions was to move the test onto an online format. However the paradigm shift poses its own problems as the Aug. 18 date approaches, according to a published work by Ohio State University Public Law students, who examined the multiple options exam administrators had available on the table when considering how to administer the test.
“The feasibility of this option would rest largely on the National Conference of Bar Examiners’s ability to move the Uniform Bar Exam and each of its components online,” according to the document. “A sudden move to online exams could also raise questions about equating scores to previous written exams. Given the need to make decisions quickly it would be very risky to rely on this alternative.”
One such risk or complication is whether or not test-takers could even access the exam from home computers.
The board’s recent decision is welcome news to many students who felt the board was ignoring their pleas, such as Florida International University law graduate Brian Heckmann. Heckmann was scheduled to take the test at the Orange County Convention Center, but started a petition to seek an alternative when it became clear that COVID-19 cases were increasing.
“This certainly is a welcome change, especially for somebody like me who is immunocompromised and at high risk for serious illness or death if infected, Heckmann said. “However my only apprehension with the current solution is that it may be too little, too late.”
Heckmann’s online petition called for the board to waive the exam for this generation of law students, arguing that moving the test online creates logistical difficulties. His petition has a goal 5,000 signatures and so far is at 3,300.
“These are extraordinary times which present extraordinary challenges,” Heckmann wrote. “We, the law school class of 2020 ask that the Florida Board of Bar Examiners rise to these challenges with an extraordinary solution to prevent any further undue hardship to our professional careers.”
Waiving the exam is a process known as emergency “diploma privileges;” a practice seen out of Wisconsin, which has made long use of licensing graduates of state schools without the need to take a bar exam.
“Diploma Privileges would be the ideal option because it would be the only one that both takes into account the uniquely difficult position applicants this year had and would not materially prejudice those applicants,” Heckmann said. “No group of applicants ever before had to prepare for the test with a significant risk of serious illness or death to themselves or their families based on exposure caused by this test.”
The bar exam will consist of 100 multiple-choice questions and three essay questions and may cover any subject that is traditionally tested, according to the Florida Supreme Court. Applicants must also have access to a computer with a webcam and internet to allow for proctoring.
“The board will not provide this technology to any applicant,” the Florida Supreme Court stated.
The board will extend the deadline for the applying for test accommodations relating to the online format to July 10.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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