The July 2020 Bar Exam and COVID-19: Risks, precautions and resources
The COVID-19 virus continues to intrude in all aspects of the professional lives of Missouri lawyers, including in the lives of those trying to become Missouri lawyers. The July Bar Exam will take place next week, and as COIVD-19 community spread increases, there are questions raised about how the test is being conducted to best ensure the safety of all involved.
The Supreme Court of Missouri created the Missouri Board of Law Examiners (MBLE) to oversee these exams, and they report they have been daily monitoring conditions to determine if and how the test should go forward. In a statement released earlier this month, Clerk of the Court Betsy AuBuchon said the bar exam will take place July 27 and 28 as scheduled: “Even though the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges to this core responsibility of the Court and the Board, as well as unprecedented burdens on those taking the Bar Exam, the Court has determined the process set out in the April 28, 2020, order best balances that long-term responsibility and these short‑term burdens.”
The Missouri Bar has received letters and messages from current Missouri lawyers, examinees and their family members who are concerned about taking the July 2020 Missouri Bar Exam and who ask about safety procedures in place and alternatives to not taking the exam. We posed those questions to Andrea Spillars, director of the Missouri Board of Law Examiners:
How are you responding to requests for accommodations from examinees with compromised immune systems or who are deemed to be at increased risk for severe illness under CDC guidelines?
The Missouri Board of Law Examiners has been working diligently to provide appropriate accommodations for individuals with compromised immune systems, including securing and training additional proctors to accommodate requests for private testing. Private testing rooms have been provided in those instances in which examinees have submitted timely requests with medical documentation confirming their condition and need for a separate room.
We understand there was a July 1 deadline for those requests. What options does an examinee have if something after that date has changed making them more at risk of contracting the virus?
MBLE recognizes this unprecedented situation has been a significant source of stress and uncertainty and has made every effort to provide accommodations for the particular health needs of applicants when appropriate. For individuals who were not aware of their high-risk diagnosis or condition before the July 1 deadline, MBLE has provided accommodations if there was sufficient time to do so before the exam. Examinees also have the option of postponing the exam until February 2021, without incurring any additional fees.
What health precautions is MBLE taking to ensure the safety of test takers, exam proctors and staff?
MBLE has implemented extensive protective measures, based on the guidance from local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to safeguard the health of examinees, proctors and staff attending the bar examination. A detailed plan was submitted to the county health department at each location where the exam will be held, which includes:
- Limiting seating to 25% or less of the maximum seating capacity for each room.
- Requiring all examinees wear a protective face mask that covers the nose and mouth at all times during the exam, including screening, registration, testing and breaks. MBLE has procured 1,300 face masks to provide examinees one for each day of the exam, in the event they do not have their own. Examinees may also wear face shields in addition to face masks (but not in lieu of) and protective gloves if they choose to do so.
- Staggering the exam screening and start times to decrease the number of applicants congregating in those areas to ensure social distance can be maintained.
- Placing markers throughout the testing area at six-foot distance and enforcing social distancing measures.
- Seating only one examinee per table with at least six-foot social distance from other seated examinees.
- Requiring board staff and proctors wear protective face shields and masks at all times and gloves and disposable gowns when handling test material.
- Disinfecting exam tables after each testing session and ensuring common touch areas are routinely disinfected.
- Releasing examinees from their testing room one row at a time to limit gathering size in the hallway and lobby to ensure social distance can be maintained.
- Providing hand sanitizer throughout the testing area. Examinees may also bring their own personal bottle of hand sanitizer.
- Requiring examinees attest they meet criteria identified by the CDC to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (i.e. have not been diagnosed with or knowingly had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19, within the 20 days prior to the exam)
- Positioning clear plastic screens/barriers at registration and other areas where there may be less than six-foot distance between staff/proctors and examinees during the check-in process. ADA proctors will be positioned behind three-sided plastic screens/barriers in private testing rooms.
- Training staff and proctors regarding CDC information to prevent spread of COVID-19, proper use of PPE provided by MBLE, and implementing the protective measures planned for the exam.
Is there Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) test takers can or must use during the exam?
Yes, see above.
Will masks be required during the exam?
Yes, applicants will be required to wear a protective face mask that covers the nose and mouth. Masks will be required during the entire administration of the exam, including screening, registration, testing and breaks.
How many test takers will be in one location at the same time? How will social distancing play a part in that?
As of July 23, there are 415 examinees registered to test at the Columbia location and 206 at the Lake location (see social distancing measures included above). The number of examinees scheduled to test in each room is no more than 25% of the maximum seating capacity for that room. The largest number of examinees in a testing room (252 in EXPO) will be less than 10% of the maximum seating capacity for that room (2,700 max seating capacity).
How many proctors will be present during the exam? Will their role include monitoring for social distancing, mask wearing and other health measurements?
MBLE will have a total of 60 staff and proctors assigned to both testing sites. Staff and proctors have been trained regarding the protective measures in place and their role in ensuring those are followed.
If someone is not comfortable taking the exam considering the risks associated with COVID-19, what are their alternatives? It is too late for individuals to postpone to the February exam?
Applicants who remain concerned about potential exposure to COVID-19 while attending the bar exam despite the precautions in place may postpone taking the exam to February 2021. If they do so prior to the exam, they will not incur any additional postponement fees, and their exam fee will be applied to the February administration.
Where can our members and test takers learn more about exam health precautions?
Applicants were provided a notice June 5 regarding the protective measures being implemented to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of all persons attending the July 2020 bar examination. A copy of the June 5 notice is also posted on the MBLE website here. On July 10, applicants were provided a reminder and update regarding the protective measures, with specific information regarding their testing location. A copy of the health plan submitted to each county where the exam will be held is also publicly available.
Currently, there is no alternative to the July in-person exam, other than postponement to the February Bar Exam. AuBuchon’s statement noted that although alternatives had been evaluated, the “Court has concluded none of these alternatives adequately ensures the core function of licensure, which is to protect the integrity of the profession and the public from those who have not demonstrated minimum competency to practice law.”
Tom Bender, 2019-20 president of The Missouri Bar, said the Supreme Court of Missouri has been a national leader in altering the day-to-day operations of the judiciary through rule changes that protect the health of the public and all those who play a role in our state’s legal system. Bender added that, unfortunately, these health risks will not go away soon and the state bar will continue to discuss and offer its help to the Board of Law Examiners and Supreme Court of Missouri to research and implement feasible alternatives to future in-person bar exams.
“Just as we care about the safety and well-being of our members, we care about the well-being of examinees as they face this final hurdle to becoming a Missouri lawyer,” Bender said. “These are stressful times even in the best of circumstances and even more so now. We encourage all law students and their immediate family members to take advantage of free and confidential counseling services available 24/7 at (800) 688-7859 through our Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program.”