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She and other Colorado law grads worried that a coronavirus bar exam was a bad idea. Then she tested positive.

Sydney Donovan found out about her positive COVID-19 test result when she turned on her phone Wednesday after finishing the test. She was asymptomatic and was only screened because of an upcoming surgery.

Colorado Court of Appeals courtroom. At the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, on the first floor, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Jeffrey Beall, via Flickr)
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Sydney Donovan felt fine. But ahead of a shoulder surgery scheduled for Friday, the recent University of Denver Sturm College of Law grad was required to get tested for the new coronavirus. 

On Monday she received a nasal swab fully expecting the results to come back negative. On Tuesday and Wednesday she sat for the bar exam at the University of Denver over 16 hours in a classroom with about 20 others. 

When she finished the test on Wednesday afternoon, the last speed bump on her way to hopefully practicing patent law, Donovan turned on her phone and noticed she had missed a call.

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There was a voicemail with some bad news: Her surgery was canceled. Why? She has tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was completely predictable,” she said. “We knew this was going to happen. I just didn’t know it was going to be me.”

Donovan, 31, was among a group of recent law school graduates in Colorado who pushed the state to allow them to temporarily forgo the test and warned of the consequences if they didn’t take action. They argued that gathering people in classrooms to take the notoriously grueling exam in the middle of a pandemic was a bad idea of epic proportions. 

Their request? Let us skip the bar exam later and give us privileges to work as lawyers, as other states have done

“We urge you to make the humane choice: grant diploma privilege to protect the physical, mental, financial, and professional well-being of future Colorado attorneys as we begin our careers,” recent graduates and Colorado law school faculty wrote in a letter to the Colorado Supreme Court. 

The response from the Colorado Supreme Court? To meet the new grads halfway by allowing them to put off the test until February and work in limited and supervised capacities. 

The recent graduates’ fears weren’t assuaged by the response and during this week’s exams their worst-case-scenario prediction came true.

Jessica Yates, who leads Colorado’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, said it learned one of the people who took the bar exam had tested positive on Wednesday evening. She said the person — she didn’t identify Donovan — passed two temperature checks and four health questionnaires.

“We have been in touch with both DU and the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment,” Yates said. “Because of the consistent wearing of masks, particularly with six-foot distancing, they do not deem the testing environment as ‘close contact’ with a COVID-positive person.  The public health authorities are not asking individuals in the same testing room to self-isolate or be tested at this time. “

“While horrible, this was entirely predictable,” aid Leah Fugere, editor-in-chief of the University of Colorado Law Review and one of the loudest voices in pointing out the danger of holding the exam.

The group of students who pushed for the exam to be delayed said in a statement Thursday that they hope other state’s learn from what happened in Colorado.

“We hope other jurisdictions holding in-person bar examinations will take this event as a lesson that no matter how safe you think you are being, you cannot prevent an asymptomatic carrier, including those acting in good faith and completely unaware of their infected status, from sitting the exam,” they said in a joint statement.

Fugere said a contact tracer has reached out to other students who took the exam to warn them about their exposure.

“Applicants often crossed paths in the hallway when depositing or collecting personal items and during lunch breaks and bathroom breaks,” the joint statement said. “We have notified other applicants of this incident to ensure everyone takes appropriate measures to quarantine and, if necessary, get tested.”

Donovan said so far she is doing OK. She has a slight headache and a scratchy throat — both of which came after she completed the exam. She was masked during the test.

“I would think it was allergies if it weren’t for that I had just tested positive for COVID,” she said. 

She has no idea where she caught the virus. She has been mostly at home studying for the bar exam in recent weeks, though she made a few masked trips to the grocery store and went on one mountain biking adventure. 

She said her positive result is a told-you-so moment, but not one that’s left her feeling happily validated. “I feel horrible that this has happened and I was involved in it,” she said, stressing that she had no idea she was ill and would have stayed home if she had any inkling that she was carrying the virus. 

As for how she did on the test?

“I felt, I think, as (reasonably confident) as I think anyone can coming out of the bar exam,” she said. “It’s a really tough test.”


Updated at 11:09 a.m. on Friday, July 31, 2020: This story has been updated to correct that recent law school grads in Colorado wanted to skip taking the bar exam and be given privileges to work as lawyers.