What happens when a professor is unable to finish teaching a class due to COVID-19?

Colleges need to establish continuity of operations plans to deal to ensure minimal disruptions in teaching and grading.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

As the saying goes, all professors are mortal. From time to time, faculties will deal with tragedy. Due to various health situations, a professor may be unable to finish a class as planned. Perhaps the situation will last a short time. For example, a professor needs a few weeks to recover from surgery. In such cases, colleagues can cover a few classes. Or, perhaps, the professor can pre-record lectures which the students can watch. Or, in more recent times, the professor can teach a class remotely from home. (Yes, Zoom existed before March 2020). Other situations are permanent. Professors may suddenly be forced to retire. Or Professors may pass away in the middle of a semester, perhaps with little advance notice. In such cases, colleagues will have to teach the remainder of the class–that includes preparing an exam, and grading it.

Over my career, these sorts of tragedies have been quite rare. But going forward, these occurrences may become more common. And these concerns are not limited to universities with in-person or hybrid classes. Even professors who are teaching strictly online classes may still be affected by COVID-19. Colleges need to recognize these eventualities, and establish continuity of operations plans in advance. Administrations should try to ensure minimal disruption in teaching and grading. This post will highlight four factors to consider.

First, no two classes are identical. Every professor teaches a topic in his or her own way. That diversity of thought is ideal. Students should be exposed to as many different types of pedagogy as possible. Indeed, I applaud the standard that 1Ls cannot select their own schedules; they should be given a wide variety of teaching styles, whether they like it or not. But that diversity of approaches creates significant difficulties if a professor is unable to finish the semester.

In such a case, a colleague would be asked to jump in, perhaps in the middle of the semester. A diligent colleague would watch all the lectures to figure out what was taught, and what was not taught. (You cannot take the students' word for it.) And invariably, a thoughtful colleague would recognize that some things were not taught up to her standards, and would want to revisit those areas. (Or more precisely, the former teacher taught things differently that the current teacher would have.) And before you know it, the colleague will decide to reteach much of the class, on top of teaching all the remaining material. That catchup may require additional classes on evenings or weekends. Or, perhaps, the colleague will simply ask the students to watch her prior recordings from this semester, or another semester, to catch up.

The students, no doubt, will get very frustrated, no matter what path is chosen. They will be sympathetic to the fact that their original professor can no longer teach. But that sympathy will quickly give way to the students' sense that the situation is unfair to them. I don't have a magic bullet here. Changing a professor mid-stream creates a very difficult situation for students. Perhaps one ideal approach would be for all professors that teach the same class should synchronize their syllabuses and use the same books. That approach would minimize disruptions. I am skeptical professors could achieve such collective action.

Second, what to do about grades? In most required classes, grades are based on a single final exam. From the beginning of the semester, students prepare for a class with an eye towards the exam. You will prepare your outline one way for an open-book exam and another way for a closed-book exam. If an exam is all multiple choice, you focus on multiple choice questions. If an exam is all essay, you hone your writing skills. And so on.

But what if a professor passes away mid-semester? The replacement colleague would then be put in a tough spot: she cannot possibly write an exam in the exact same fashion the original professor would have. Perhaps the solution is to administer an old exam. That approach has problems. Old exams invariably leak out. (I put all of my exams online, and always write new questions every semester.). Even then, an old exam may involve topics that are no longer covered. (From year to year, most professors revise their syllabuses, and add and remove issues).

Even if the new professor can replicate the style and substance of the old professor's exam, the students will still feel the situation is unfair: a different person is grading it. Every professor has a different internal rubric, and external curve. Some professors are generous, and other professors are not generous.

Indeed, many students will register for a class precisely because it is known as an easy class. Such actions are completely rational. All things being equal, most students will prefer an easy A to a hard B. (I was a masochist in law school, and I deliberately sought out the hardest professors who would challenge me.) To adjust, the new professor may try to replicate the curve her predecessor used. But some students still will not be happy–every curve has a left-tail. And the students will insist they would have done better with their original professor. Prove that counterfactual wrong!

So far I have focused on classes with exam. The dynamics are even more complicated with a "paper" class. Generally in a writing seminar, a professor will work closely with students throughout the semester. She will approve the topic, refine an outline, and read a draft. Students will generally get a sense of their expected grade along the way. There are seldom surprises. But the situation changes when a new professor is asked to grade an already-written paper. Those old expectations would be unsettled.

Perhaps the solution is to give the students an option of pass/fail. That option could be elected before or after the student sees her score. (We considered the pros and cons to both approaches in the spring). A pass/fail option eliminates some unfairness, as a student's GPA would not decrease. But, in theory at least, it could increase.

Third, administrations should adopt a continuity of operations plan before the semester starts. It should be published, so faculty and students know what is expected of them. I think it is a mistake to create ad hoc plans as the situations arise. There is much uncertainty for the fall, but at least we can plan for this sort of eventuality.

Fourth, I raise an issue that should be promptly dismissed: some professors who are asked to cover a colleague's class may seek additional compensation. Get over it. We are living in tough times, and budgets are strapped. Sure, it is a burden and extra work. But  if a colleague becomes ill, or incapacitated, the least we can do is to chip in, and spread the work.

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  1. Josh Blackman, I really enjoy your pieces at Volokh, but you pose the question here:

    “But what if a professor passes away mid-semester?”

    You mean, dies from Covid? What are the chances of that occurring, as opposed to death by cancer, cardiac arrest, and other conditions, car accident, falling off a ladder, suicide, or murder? If, statistically, law professors are elderly and in the most vulnerable age bracket of death by flu, shouldn’t there already be a protocol in place to replace very ill or passed on professors?

    Are there verifiable stats showing a significantly increased death rate of university professors due to Covid flu, as opposed to other strains of flu?

    1. Having a plan, even a poor plan, is better than not having a plan, when you need a plan.

      1. Flight-ER-Doc, and so the supposition here is that no professors ever die during the semester from accidents, heart attacks, pneumonia, Parkinson’s, cancer, what have you, until now Covid?

        Let us see the stats re university professors’ vulnerability to Covid, as opposed to other flus and disease. Ultimately, are we to think law schools, to date, have made no provisions as to how to replace professors who are otherwise incapacitated or dead?

        1. Think: Hypothetically, were the scale of death to have professors dropping like flies from a pandemic, students would similarly be affected. and university would shut down.

          In the event of one or two professors dying of Covid complicated conditions, then protocols should already exist in the university system for replacing severely ill or dead personnel, as can happen, anytime.

        2. You misunderstand my point. There should ALWAYS be a plan. You should have a disaster plan for you and your family at home, too…

          If COVID is the motivation a school needs for making the plan, good. Will it be perfect? Will it address every possible contingency? No.

          But, a bad plan is better than no plan.
          People laugh that the military, for example, has contingency plans for all sorts of silliness… Counter-Zombie Dominance?

          Well should the undead law school profs walk the earth, at least there is the basis of a plan…

          1. And so , Flight-ER-Doc, smart law schools have been remiss to date re untimely and inconvenient deaths of their faculty, which must have rarely happened in the past. Where are the stats showing the likelihood of Covid deaths occurring in the future and affecting staff more than students?

      2. “Having a plan, even a poor plan, is better than not having a plan, when you need a plan.”

        The plan is “just wing it”.

    2. The larger problem is when a professor is still physically alive but psychologically unable to continue. With a death you have a publicly mentionable reason you don’t have if the professor is in detox or the psych ward, or if his wife has found out he is having an affair with his grad student, or if she’s joined a cult. I’m thinking of real problems with real professors that deans I’ve known have had to deal with, and I don’t see why law school would be any different.

      1. It has always been the case that faculty and professors get waylaid and sidelined, due to myriad medical, psychological and personal problems. No new protocols should be needed for incapacitated professors, absent a pandemic that would fell both faculty and students alike, in which case university shuts down.

        Which is not likely to happen for a hyped flu.

        1. No new protocols should be needed…exactly.

          Yet, apparently they are: For Covid, or for the professor getting hit by a bus. In terms of the class, it doesn’t really matter what the cause of the professors absence is, is there?

          1. Flight-ER-Doc,

            And so you’re saying there is nothing extraordinary, in terms of universities hiring and usual practice protocols, needed when faculty are indisposed or die, but that existential threats of Covid and other flus exist and change everything?

            Show us the verified facts and figures. Thanks.

            1. It seems our ER doc and JB have discovered a potential problem that is as old as the hills.
              And what makes JB think that this issue is particularly grave for law faculties… except for arrogance.
              Every one of these circumstances that could happen have happened. Quality institutions know how they will deal with. Covid does make like harder but not dramatically different with what has happened in the past many times.

              1. Yeah, I don’t get this whole post. Over the course of my schooling and time in policy I’ve had profs die and go crazy and the replacement wasn’t easy for the faculty but was carried off pretty well over a matter of a week each time.

                1. were the incapacitated profs all in the hospital at the same time? coronavirus disease is pandemic, so it puts lots of people in hospital (and/or morgue) at once.

                  1. That’s a decent point, I suppose. Depending on the age cohort, the hospitalizations could be a decent proportion.

                    I’m optimistic that won’t happen, but I think I understand the need for some kind of contingency plan now.

                2. A professor dying and going crazy? Wow, that’s insult to injury.

                  1. Not necessarily in that order.

    3. The challenge of Covid as opposed to, say heart disease, is that if it affects the faculty at all, there’s a good possibility that it affects more than one faculty member at a time.

  2. We have the same problems in medical schools…but tend towards fact based questions, not essays

    The worst case i would think, would be when a professor passes away after the test, but before the grading… What a mess that would be.

    1. “The worst case i would think, would be when a professor passes away after the test, but before the grading… What a mess that would be.”

      Depends on whether TAs are doing the grading runs, and if so, who trained them. My mother used to teach accounting, and I sometimes helped grade them. In accounting, either you have the right numbers in the right places or you don’t. So I’d go through the stack of exams and mark the right answers right which I could do, because I had the answer key. Then she’d go through and figure out how much to take off for putting the wrong numbers in the right places, or for putting the right numbers in the wrong places, by working backwards to figure out what mistakes were made and how close to being right the student had actually been.
      When I became an instructor, parts of my exams could be graded by someone else (in multiple-choice, you either selected the right combination of choices or you didn’t. In the short-answer section, either the right words were written down or they weren’t. After the exam, I allowed students to challenge the grading by making a brief argument in class as to why the answer they gave should have been considered a correct answer. I was the referee for these adjustments, if any.

    2. First, I think there is a bit of a difference between the concern about death from the ordinary vicissitudes of life (such as being hit by a bus) and the *added* risk of taken on if one is being required to cross the 6 lane road, frequented by much traffic, without a stoplight.

      I expect the extent of added risk is not easy to determine. However, our school is located in Fort Lauderdale, one of the South Florida COVID hot-spots. Local hospitals are running 98% capacity on ICU beds, have cleared out wings and opened and continue to open floors dedicated to the ever-growing number of COVID patients.

      At our medical school, we are “lean” on faculty and the loss of even one faculty member–no matter the cause–would be a significant problem. Pre-COVID we has ensured that there are two course directors for each course, so there is some cross-coverage, but our system-based, case-based curriculum requires multiple specialist instructors (you can’t ask the pathology prof to do the pharmacology lecture). Further, you can’t find replacement PhDs and MDs capable of stepping into an active-learning curriculum hanging about on local street-corners, available at short notice. About the only thing we don’t worry about are exams. The 2 or 3 high value (totaling about 70% of the course grade) subject-matter exams aren’t an issue–nationally-validated MCQ exam questions can be ordered from the National Board of Medical Examiners.

      Still, I think it would be wise to do a cost-benefit analysis. Our feedback from spring’s pivot to on-line only instruction was favorably received and 100% of our first class of students passed the NBME Step 1 exam, so we must have done something right. If our faculty can deliver the education we promised students *without* increased risk of contagion inherent in standing for two hour blocks in enclosed spaces with multiple groups of students, why would we think demanding in-person education is a good idea?

  3. “What happens when a professor is unable to finish teaching a class due to COVID-19?”

    Same thing that happens when a professor is unable to finish teaching a class due to any other reason.

    1. Right, unless we’re missing something like scale of death, and then students, also, would be dying in droves and university closed.

      1. Covid affects the elderly, especially the elderly with comorbidities, more than the young and healthy…So there is likely no correlation between the number of profs and students.

        Also, one prof deals with a number of students…I usually had med school classes of 35-50 students and two classes a term… So there is a disproportionate impact there.

        1. Flight-ER-Doc: “So there is a disproportionate impact there.”

          Please show us that disproportionate impact. Thanks!

          1. One professor is rendered unable to complete the class, for whatever reason….

            70-300 or more students are affected.

            OTOH, if 1 student is unable to complete the class, he or she gets an incomplete or a drop. The rest of the class goes on without him.

            1. What you point out is troubling– that law school and other university schools make no adequate provisions for sick and dying faculty, each semester. Shame on them for the fraud.

              1. Your understanding of law is on par with your understanding of medicine.

        2. “Covid affects the elderly, especially the elderly with comorbidities, more than the young and healthy”

          So do ~90% of other diseases, especially those that can cause death.

          So….

          1. Absolutely, sure, and yes, Armchair Lawyer.

        3. So there is likely no correlation between the number of profs and students.

          Actually, I think there is very likely to be a strong correlation.

  4. In response to Josh Blackman, you say, “We have the same problems in medical schools…but tend towards fact based questions, not essays.”

    Flight-ER-Doc, you must have the current fact-based stats and their modeled extrapolations regarding actual and projected university professor and student deaths due to Covid. Can you show us which models are used and their numbers? Thanks.

    1. Edit: In response to Flight=ER-Doc [not Josh Blackman], you say, “We have the same problems in medical schools…but tend towards fact based questions, not essays.”

    2. I could but I retired from Academe, I’m just a clinical physician these days.

  5. Josh,
    I think you underestimate the ability of a “new” professor to grade exams fairly…even if she had to come on as late as after the exams had been given by Professor # 1.
    Term papers? That would be a real issue and a real problem. But normal law school essays? No problem at all. If a new teacher knows the subject, she will know that your crim law answer talked about Breaking, Entering, Dwelling, At night, Prior Intent fully. But didn’t cover “Of another” well, and didn’t discuss changes from the common law (if the questions asked for both), and so this answer was in the 70-79 range. Yes, there will be, of course, deviations from the scoring that the original teacher would have given. But, by and large, students will still get the approximate grade they would have received.

    Don’t have an answer re term papers…other than pass/fail option, as you already discussed in your OP.

    1. Josh also exaggerates the issue by his claim that the majority of professors are elderly.
      Perhaps in poorly run departments that is true.

  6. The only problem I can think of is when the old professor didn’t make sufficient notes about what they covered. (Or if they made notes, but somewhere where the new prof can’t get to them.) If two professors can’t teach the same subject in a vaguely consistent way, you’re doing it wrong. It’s the law, not literature appreciation.

    1. How much being taught *is* the law — and how much is what an ideological activist wants it to be? At Harvard, I’d argue mostly the latter…

      1. ” At Harvard, I’d argue mostly the latter…”

        Based on your extensive experience at Harvard, I’m sure.

  7. You act like the standard is to perfectly recreate what the original prof would have done. But students have imperfect info about that and tend to only have a vague outline of how the final will look or how it will be graded.

    A professor who watches all the existing lectures won’t have too much trouble generating a final that is within the range of student expectations.

    Based on my experience the real problem is professors who think it’s more important that things be taught and tested according to what they see as the right way rather than what the students have been lead to expect.

  8. Because professors have never, ever died before, during the period of a class.

    1. Right you are, Jerry B., because inanity and insanity reign these days.

  9. I agree with many of the remarks here: I assume the same thing that happens when a professor is unable to finish teaching a class because of a heart attack, or whatever. Were professors immortal prior to Covid-19, or something?

    1. It turns out that “unable to teach” is pretty uncommon, unless it is a synonym for “deceased”. What happens in reality is that the class is altered to account for an instructor’s non-availability. If the instructor can only be present for 9 of the 10 weeks of a term, the content of the course will be adjusted to have 90% of the content, or the pace of the class will be include everything in the time that is available.
      I once had to adjust a five-week class to account for being unable to speak for a week-and-a-half.

  10. Is it really the case that the schools have no plans in place to deal with a teacher suddenly dying, or otherwise being unable to finish teaching a course?

    That seems unlikely to me, but who knows. If they don’t, they should develop some.

    Fortunately, as with airplane seats and other matters, Prof. Blackman is here to save the day.

    1. “Is it really the case that the schools have no plans in place to deal with a teacher suddenly dying, or otherwise being unable to finish teaching a course? ”

      As a general case, yes, that is the case. Sometimes, they don’t even know who is going to teach the sections and classes until the term starts. There’s jockeying about which instructor will take which class sections, with approximately nobody fighting for the Friday night section(s). Some class subjects are extremely difficult to find somebody to teach and efforts to hire an instructor sometimes last right up to the first scheduled class.
      If someone cannot teach their assigned class, management will do their best to rearrange the master schedule to fix it. They’ll scramble as much as they have to, when they have to.

  11. As usual, Josh inflates the status of everything he does. Today, it’s teaching law school.

    To hear Josh tell it, asking someone to complete a dead professor’s course is like asking someone else to finish the Sistine Chapel if Michelangelo croaks mid-painting. It’s not.

    If I were the Dean, I would appoint a substitute professor, who would walk into class, express her condolences, and ask the students to help him make as detailed a list as possible as to what was covered and what was not, using the students’ notes and whatever written materials were handed out. Then she would teach the rest of the course the way she wants to teach it, doing the exams the way she wants to do them. For the dead professor’s material, spend a few classes in review, and don’t emphasize it too much in the exams.

    1. I think you’ve diagnosed the man’s disease correctly.

    2. As an aside, I’d just note that the problem of English lacking a gender neutral pronoun isn’t actually fixed by switching the default from male to female. All that does is provide another indication of our society’s ongoing transformation into a matriarchy. And there’s no reason to suppose matriarchy is superior to patriarchy.

      1. They works fine.

        Also, since we’re not a matriarchy and never have been, she doesn’t have the same charge as he.

        But you’ll pry my use of ‘dude’ from my cold dead mouth-hole.

  12. some professors who are asked to cover a colleague’s class may seek additional compensation. Get over it. We are living in tough times, and budgets are strapped.

    Indeed. My company reduced everyone’s salaries 14-20%, to hell with an increase this year, and is still losing money, and I do software. Big ticket items are way down and when your costs are amortized over many units, well…professors attached to a government tit should be glad they have it that good to begin with.

    1. “professors attached to a government tit should be glad they have it that good to begin with.”

      Currently…

      Antifa & BLM are not only going to re-elect Trump but give him a friendly Congress and I can see the Higher Ed largess ending suddenly. Trump has already issued an EO that agencies remove the college degree requirement from job applications.

      1. ” Trump has already issued an EO that agencies remove the college degree requirement from job applications.”

        Big surprise. The buffoon-in-chief would prefer to hire uneducated buffoons, assuming of course that they are awed at the opportunity to work for him.

        1. I see nothing wrong with replacing a degree with “or equivalent experience.”
          I certainly have seen people held back because of lack of a piece of paper thirty years ago.
          By the way, for almost every university job except post-doctoral fellow, a PhD may not be a job requirement.

          1. That’s not what prompted the rule change, obviously. Trump is not one to denigrate college degrees, at least from the Ivy League, or to validate the views of uneducated people. (Look up what he said about coal miners.) There is a reason why he doesn’t want people with professional qualifications. Can you guess why that is?

          2. “I see nothing wrong with replacing a degree with ‘or equivalent experience.'”

            If there is equivalent experience, and the person assessing the candidates is capable of objective analysis. The only qualification Mr. Trump values is personal loyalty. What degree is that equivalent to?

  13. My problem is the assumption that the students game the system, and that that gaming has to be coddled and taken into account. And, yes law students do game tests. But let me suggest that this is maybe too much coddling, and that profs are sensitive to it, because they themselves come from the portion of law school students who gamed the system most effectively.

    Let me give a couple examples. My Contracts prof gave one point for a case cite, one for the jurisdiction, and one for the year. But he didn’t count off for inapplicable cites, and counted them even if only marginally relevant. In short, he rewarded behavior that put you at odds with most judges. So, if you answered based on the law, you got a lower grade. The guy who had the top grade the year before admitted to me that he had a photographic memory, and just strung together long strings of barely relevant cases. Or my brother, whose Contracts prof told them not to use the UCC, and he then threw out any answers that even mentioned “UCC”, even to say that it was also relevant. Esp in lower level required classes, there is a lot of BS going on, that shouldn’t be.

    Maybe more important, much of a lawyer’s writing is for judges, and judges get replaced much more frequently than law school professors (COVID-19 or not). They can get conflicted out, or stuck in a two month jury trial, etc. You can’t go back to your client and tell them that your brief would have been brilliant with Judge X, but Judge Y took over the case, and found it idiotic. It was probably idiotic all along, and you were just catering to the first judge’s peculiarities, or hitting his personal hot buttons.

    I will suggest then that at least for 1L required classes, that the students would be better served by the different profs teaching the various sections grading different questions for different students, or some such arrangement. For example with 5 profs teaching 5 sections, each could write 5 questions, and give them to his students, then maybe Prof#1 could grade all Question#1 for all sections, etc. That would probably result in better lawyers, but the small segment who best game the system, and most often end up as law profs, would be the only ones disadvantaged. Boo hoo.

  14. ” if a colleague becomes ill, or incapacitated, the least we can do is to chip in, and spread the work.”

    I have some experience in this regard. When I started law school, I was employed as the IT system administrator at a vocational college. A member of the faculty became ill and was hospitalized a couple of weeks after the start of the term. I was asked to cover a couple of weeks of class lectures while he was unable to teach. I stepped in. Then, he suffered complications and passed away as a result. This changed my assignment from “keep the lights on” to “take over” and substantially altered the time requirement. It also pushed me into the faculty to teach the classes he would have taught the subsequent term.

  15. Josh, your approach here is wrong on so many levels. The only “plan” needed here is to offer extra compensation to those who are willing to take over a dead professor’s course!

    1. “extra compensation”
      You have to be dreaming.

      1. The claim is that offering extra compensation would achieve the goal of getting classes covered, which it would. There was no claim about where the funding for this would or could come from.

  16. some professors who are asked to cover a colleague’s class may seek additional compensation. Get over it. We are living in tough times, and budgets are strapped. Sure, it is a burden and extra work.

    For once I agree with Blackman.

    Extra compensation? Just take sometime away from writing lengthy blog posts and submitting endless amicus briefs and do your job – teach some classes.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about law faculties from reading this and other legal blogs it’s that the teachers seem to have tons of spare time. Stop whining.

    1. To be fair to teachers, so far, the only whining has been hypothetical. I expect that most professors, if asked to fill in in a health-related emergency, would ask if there was extra compensation (which seems reasonable, given that there’s extra work). And if told that there simply wasn’t available money, would fill in without complaint. My father (philosophy) and my sister (urban planning) both did this, both asked for additional compensation, and would have been happy to do it if not compensation was given. (Well, not “happy” to do it…but willing to do it without complaint.)

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