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This isn’t a ‘new normal’ for schools or government

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, pictured at top on a television monitor in the Senate chamber gallery, gives a thumbs-up as Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, leads the Utah Legislature’s virtual special session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 16, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — People are talking about the “new normal,” or pandemic-induced lifestyle changes that will linger after the virus is gone.

You can debate the pros and cons of permanently working from home — maybe we have to go stir crazy to make the air cleaner — but two parts of the pandemic world ought to go away as quickly as possible: virtual school and virtual government, at least until we find a way to do both better.

Public school teachers have been largely on their own to invent online classes on the fly, with mixed results. Parents I’ve spoken to talk of dealing with several teachers at once using different philosophies, of meaningless virtual busywork, and of trying desperately to get screen time for multiple children using a shortage of home computers.

Some virtual classes have been great. Some have been confusing. Some children don’t have access to reliable internet. Teachers, meanwhile, tell of spending many hours a day preparing to make online learning work.

It’s hard to know how public school instruction has gone during the second half of the school year just ending. Online learning has its place, and the pandemic may shed light on some of its best uses, but we should all hope in-person classrooms reopen in the fall.

Ditto for government. Important decisions are being made regarding laws and taxes without much public participation.

The Utah Legislature met in a virtual special session last month, with each lawmaker participating from a home office, living room or other remote location. Because of technical difficulties, they bypassed the normal committee process. That meant bypassing public comments and face-to-face interactions with people affected by the laws being created.

This week, the Legislature announced a new process for future remote committee hearings. People who wish to speak will need to file a request at least 12 hours in advance. This will give staff members and committee chairpersons time to decide how many people will be allowed to speak, a winnowing process that hasn’t been made clear.

These meetings will be available to the public through audio only. People allowed to speak will be notified 30 minutes in advance. Until their time comes, they will be in a silent virtual waiting room.

Before I go too much farther, it’s important to understand that these concerns are at least partly driven by serious security problems. An FBI press release on Wednesday said the bureau has received more than 195 complaints of Zoom conference calls being interrupted by videos depicting child sexual abuse.

The press release said this sort of hacking is a violent crime. Children portrayed in the videos are re-victimized, and everyone who inadvertently sees the video “is potentially a victim as well.”

The waiting room is one way to keep the bad guys out.

But it also creates a situation far from the normal give-and-take of a legislative committee meeting. That interaction tends to whittle away at the sharp edges of proposed laws, making them more representative of the needs of the people.

Under normal circumstances, a committee chair would ask for a show of hands as to how many would like to speak. Some people might not intend to speak until they hear something provocative from a sponsoring lawmaker or a committee member. In this process, no one is excluded because of income or status.

In a virtual world, income and status matter. Some of the people most affected by pandemic-induced budget cuts may be too poor to afford internet service or too disabled to use computer equipment.

I don’t want to be unfairly critical of all this. Americans ought to be grateful that this pandemic came at a time when technology allows for remote gatherings. Without computers, governments, churches and private businesses would be unable to safely meet.

But the process is barely adequate for the standards of government by the people, just as it isn’t close to perfect for a robust, universal public education system. Remote capabilities can give people greater access to public education and government, but they aren’t a substitute for the real thing.

No one should confuse these parts of the current situation with a new normal.