by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

Well, from all accounts, it appears we may be over the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic: vaccines are up, cases are down, masks are coming off and things are opening back up. After more than a year of masks, lockdowns, virtual meetings and shortages of everything from toilet paper to turkeys, things are slowly getting back to normal. As we transition, I have been thinking about lessons we learned during the pandemic and here are a few of my thoughts.

People and Institutions are Adaptable. Once it was clear that we were in this for the long haul, the purveyors of gloom and doom took over – people will not be able to make it, businesses will never recover, grocery stores will close their doors. And for a while, it seemed they were right. Some people panicked. We couldn’t get masks. We couldn’t get toilet paper or hand sanitizer. Restaurants and retail stores stopped selling. Government offices went dark and legislators adjourned prematurely. But slowly, gradually, we adapted.  Manufacturers increased production of scarce items. Stores started selling and people started buying online instead of in person. We all learned how to “zoom” with colleagues and family alike to host virtual staff meetings, family gatherings and public hearings. Restaurants shifted to delivery, take out and outdoor seating. People worked from home. Teachers taught and students learned from home. Bills and budgets were debated and passed by legislatures during virtual sessions  and signed by governors. It wasn’t perfect, but we made it work.

Some Things (and People) Work Better than Others Virtually.  Many office managers found their businesses more efficient when working at home, with less time spent in personal conversation and lower overhead expenses. Many people (especially introverts) were more satisfied and more productive working from home. As the pandemic accelerated the trend toward online shopping, many retailers saw their sales increase rather than decrease as potential customers were now around the nation instead of just around the corner. Government agencies and elected officials found they could still conduct much of the state’s business and meet the demands of their constituents virtually as many online meetings and services proved to be more efficient than their in-person counterparts. However, it was not all positive. While some students thrived in the virtual space, others floundered without the personal connection to teachers and fellow students, despite the creative and heroic efforts of many teachers. The impact was particularly devastating on students of color and lower income families who may have limited access to the internet. Also, an increase in domestic violence, mental illness and suicides during the pandemic makes it clear that many paid a high price for the pandemic-induced isolation.

People Will Vote Given the Opportunity. As the crisis extended from spring into summer and then into fall, many were afraid that fear of the infection would keep people away from the polls, skewing the fall election results one way or the other. Some primary elections were cancelled or delayed and there was even some talk of delaying the November general elections. However, thanks to innovations in access to the ballot, the 2020 general election turned out to have the highest voter turnout in at least a century. With increased access to the ballot by mail, more early polling places, drop boxes and expanded voting hours both on election day and before, instead of the feared lower turnout, more Americans voted in 2020 than in any election in our history. In fact, turnout increased over 2016 in every state and 98 percent of the nation’s counties.

Voting Can Be Both Safe and Secure. As fears about spreading or catching the virus forced many states to make it easier to vote by mail, drop off ballots in drop boxes and vote early to avoid crowded polling places on election day, many raised concerns about fraud and electoral integrity. However, despite unfounded allegations of massive voter fraud,dismissed lawsuits, and numerous investigations have found no evidence of significant voter fraud or security breaches. In fact, many state and federal election officials and judges from both political parties have declared the 2020 election to be among the most secure in the nation’s history.

Crises Don’t Always Unite Us. It has often been said that America is like a family – we have our differences and we might scrap and fight, but during a crisis (especially united by a common enemy), we come together. This was true after Pearl Harbor. The same goes for 9/11. However, it does not seem to be the case for the pandemic. While we seemed united at first, as the virus spread and time passed, people began to retreat to their partisan corners with Democrats pushing for extended lockdowns and masking requirements and Republicans arguing that the cure (economic lockdowns) was likely to be more harmful than the illness (pandemic). While there was some bipartisan cooperation (Massachusetts and Maryland come to mind) many Republican legislatures sued Democratic executives to end emergency declarations and Democratic legislatures and Democratic legislators in some states pushed publicly for their GOP governors to take stronger actions. One would think that we would unite against a foe that has killed more than half a million Americans, but the last year has proven that sometimes, unfortunately, partisanship and ideological differences about the role and limits of government, drive a wedge between us even in the worst of times.

So, what do we make of these lessons? Will our experiences of the last sixteen months result in a “new normal” in how we work, shop, play and govern? The answer to that remains to be seen, but it is likely that many people will continue to shop and work online (at least part of the time) and while students will return to the classroom, I suspect technology and virtual activities will be much more integral than they were before the pandemic. Likewise, it is likely that the accelerated trend toward online government services like license renewal and training sessions will continue. As for voting and elections, while some states have used the 2020 results to make voting more accessible, others have gone in the other direction, using unfounded fears of fraud to restrict voter access. As always, time will tell whether or not the “new normal” will be really new or not!