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Looking at the Pandemic Through a Legal Lens

COVID-19 Pandemic

When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the United States in February 2020, Villanova Law Professor Todd Aagaard had planned to teach a climate change course during the upcoming fall 2020 semester. As cases surged around the country, he pivoted his approach and decided instead to focus on creating a new course on the legal aspects of the evolving crisis.

“When the pandemic first began it was largely looked at as a public health issue,” said Aagaard. “But soon it created a legal tidal wave impacting all areas—employment law, bankruptcy, landlord/tenant issues, insurance, contracts, health law and more. It cuts across everything and is not confined to any particular area of legal practice.”

This semester in “The Law of Pandemic Disease,” students will not only examine the legal responses to public health emergencies that arise from pandemic infectious diseases, but they will also look at the interaction of law and policy with other areas, such as science, politics and economics. They will discuss the legal and ethical questions that have arisen and how the law should react to extraordinary circumstances, as well as the ethical issues surrounding the pandemic.

Each student in the course is assigned a state in the United States and will research the potential impacts of a pandemic infectious disease outbreak in their given state, as well as the laws that may be affected. “States will include red states, blue states, big, small, coastal, middle of the country,” said Aagaard. “There will be a diversity in perspectives.”

“We can’t plan the course in its entirety because this crisis is a rapidly moving target,” said Aagaard. “But this is what happens in the workplace all the time. Attorneys have to adapt to changing circumstances and address unforeseen emergencies. This course is an opportunity for students to participate in a simulated version of that experience.”

“The Law of Pandemic Disease” is a seminar class, and with only 12 students it can be structured like a weekly running meeting. During each class, Aagaard and the students will discuss an area of law and policy and how it should respond to a pandemic such as COVID-19, and also how it could impact their state and how their state should adapt. Students will largely set the agenda, select the readings and lead discussions.

Aagaard acknowledges that the pandemic has affected everyone differently. “Each student will bring their own personal experiences and perspective to class, and this will shape how they approach things,” he said. “We have to be cognizant that we are all being impacted personally by these issues right now.”

At the close of the semester, based on their research, class discussions and their state’s unique circumstances, each student will develop analyses and recommendations for how their state’s laws should respond to COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how students respond to the course,” said Aagaard. “This is different from a typical class, and hopefully in a really exciting way.”