Public Health

Test-takers express safety concerns, fears from in-person bar exam—including lack of masks, unclean bathrooms

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Following an in-person July bar exam, some North Carolina test-takers claim that public health measures were not handled properly during the administration of the test amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, in Colorado, one bar candidate found out that she tested positive for the novel coronavirus shortly after the exam ended.

According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, 24 jurisdictions had in-person July exams, and 15 have in-person exams planned for September. The ABA adopted a resolution Aug. 4 urging state courts of last resort to postpone in-person bar exams during the COVID-19 pandemic and develop alternate plans to license candidates.

ABC 11, a Raleigh, North Carolina, affiliate, aired footage July 28 of the bar exam check-in area, and it included three people with no masks sitting behind tables.

Kimberly Herrick, chair of the North Carolina Board of Law Examiners, told the ABA Journal that this footage was taken after the check-in, and those three people were board members and North Carolina Board of Law Examiners staff who did not have contact with the applicants.

“The picture was taken while they were all finishing their breakfasts or just taking a break after being there since about 6:15 a.m.,” Herrick wrote to the Journal.

She handled support for proctors in the Jim Graham Building, an event venue in Wake County and one of three North Carolina bar sites, and wrote that she did not see proctors without masks during the test. Herrick also told the Journal she was unaware of complaints about exam conditions.

There were other concerns, as well, according to a bar exam survey that student body heads are sending electronically to recent North Carolina law school graduates. According to the survey, concerns include proctors not wearing their masks at all times during the exam; dirty public restrooms; and no sanitation procedures for tables, pencils or computer toggles. The survey does not reveal respondents’ identities.

Sydney Donovan headshotSydney Donovan is a Colorado bar exam test-taker who found out that she tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after she finished the test. Photo courtesy of Sydney Donovan.

Britni Prybol, a 2020 graduate of the Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, is involved in collecting the surveys. She told the Journal that she’s using the information to write a report, which she plans to submit to North Carolina lawmakers, in support of creating a bar exam oversight committee. She’s also been using the information when she reaches out directly to state lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Matt Stone, a July 2020 North Carolina bar applicant who graduated from the Campbell University law school in May, claims that some test proctors and IT personnel did not wear masks continuously.

“As the day went on, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” says Stone, who wore an N-95 mask to the exam. “It has been so difficult to get much attention for what we went through in the time leading up to the exam, and even now many people are afraid to speak out because they worry about retribution, like character & fitness marks.”

Like Stone, Prybol thinks that people are afraid of criticizing the in-person bar exam publicly.

“There are a lot of retaliation fears. I was sick, and I’ve been through hell. I was like, ‘I have nothing to lose, so I’ll stick my neck out there,’” says Prybol, who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in October 2017 and breast cancer in November 2017.

She is still in treatment, and she decided the day before the exam began to postpone taking it on the advice of her physician.

Prybol and others have asked the North Carolina Board of Law Examiners to offer alternatives to the July in-person bar exam. These include diploma privilege—an extension of supervised practice—for people who did not take the July bar and offering an in-person February 2021 bar exam. So far, they’ve had no success.

Colorado also had an in-person July bar exam. One test-taker says she found out that she was positive for the coronavirus the afternoon of July 29, after the bar exam had ended. She was scheduled to have surgery July 31, which was why she had a COVID-19 test.

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“As far as I know, I’m the only person who took the Colorado bar with COVID-19. In normal life, I never would have known that I have COVID, and I would never have known to get tested,” says Sydney Donovan, a 2020 graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

“I have not been going out to bars or anything. I had joked that I would have a negative [coronavirus] test taken right before the bar exam, so if I ended up with COVID, I would know where I got it,” Donovan says.

Jessica Yates, attorney regulation counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, told the Journal that the court learned of one bar candidate’s positive test after the bar exam, and the person was one of 21 people in the testing room. Only one examinee reported a positive coronavirus test to the agency, Yates told the Journal. She would not confirm whether this person was Donovan.

According to Yates, the examinee was asymptomatic, passed two temperature checks, and successfully completed four health questionnaires. Also, Yates’ agency contacted the state health department, she wrote, and was told that because people at the July bar exam consistently wore masks and maintained 6 feet social distancing with others, the testing environment didn’t present “close contact” with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. So exam takers were not asked to self isolate or be tested.

Frances Oliver, a 2020 graduate of the University of Denver law school, was in the same testing room as Donovan.

“I think that this was part of the risk was something that was well known, and people were well aware. There was just no effort to deal with it,” Oliver says. “For some of your worries to come true, it’s not a good feeling.”

See also: “Another state cancels its July and September bar exams because of COVID-19 concerns” “Louisiana backs out of in-person and remote July bar exams, and New Jersey cancels as well” “2020 Harvard Law grad postpones bar exam and her wedding plans because of COVID-19”

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