TALLAHASSEE --- Amid pushback from law-school deans, graduates and lawmakers, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners on Wednesday canceled in-person exams scheduled for late this month and announced the tests will be administered online in August.
The decision to nix in-person Bar exams in Tampa and Orlando on July 28 and July 29 came as the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continues to skyrocket, with state officials reporting an increase of more than 6,500 new cases on Wednesday.
“I’m just ecstatic and relieved, all at once,” Cathren Page, a law professor who taught at Barry University last fall, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
Page, who will teach at Mercer University School of Law in Georgia later this year, initiated one of two online petitions urging the Board of Bar Examiners to consider options other than in-person tests. One of the petitions had garnered more than 1,600 signatures as of Wednesday.
For months, the Board of Bar Examiners has been under pressure to reconsider requiring the twice-yearly exams to be administered in person.
The deans of Florida’s 12 law schools in early April asked the board and the Florida Supreme Court, which oversees the state’s legal profession, to consider a variety of other options, such as allowing the exams to be taken at each college.
But after getting the court’s approval, the board on May 5 announced plans to move ahead with in-person exams, adding a second site in Orlando to tests already planned at the Tampa Convention Center.
The May announcement said social-distancing measures would be used at the Orlando and Tampa convention centers and that applicants, administrators and proctors would have their temperatures taken before they could enter the arenas. Attendees also would have been required to wear masks.
But on Wednesday, the board announced the exams would be administered online Aug. 18.
The new test will consist of 100 multiple-choice questions and three essay questions “and may cover any subject that is traditionally tested on Part A or Part B of the General Bar examination,” the announcement said.
“Any subject may be tested by essay, multiple-choice, or both,” the board said.
Applicants sitting for the test “must have access to the technology necessary to take an online exam,” including access to a computer with a webcam and the internet “to allow for proctoring,” according to the announcement.
“WE DID IT!” the petition sponsored by “Florida Bar Examinee 2000” declared, following Wednesday’s announcement.
Florida Board of Bar Examiners Executive Director Michele Gavagni told the News Service that the board had consulted with the Department of Health and other medical experts before making the May announcement, “but even then, we said we’re going to continue to monitor the situation.”
“As you know from the numbers regarding the COVID-19 pandemic here in Florida, those numbers have changed greatly in the direction that we hoped by now that they would not be going,” she said
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., tweeted last week that “law school grads are already under massive pressure.”
“Why is Florida making them worry about their own health and being a risk to loved ones? Other state bars opted for safer solutions. Fix this Florida,” the Broward County lawmaker added.
Supporters of the online plan went on Twitter to hail the board’s decision Wednesday.
“We're hearing complaints about the online exam plans. Many of them are valid, and hopefully many can be fixed/clarified before exam day. But—this fight was principally about our HEALTH and our SAFETY. Nobody has to travel for a bar exam in FL in 2020. And that is a victory,” Florida Bar Exam Petition 2020 said in a tweet.
Gavagni said that the same rules that would apply in-person will apply to the online test.
“We have rules of conduct that prohibit applicants from using unauthorized materials, which would obviously include notes or books or study materials,” she said. “It is a remote exam but it’s also going to be proctored.”