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JONATHAN L. WHARTON

After college classes went fully online, my state and local government class hosted various Connecticut officials for class discussions. I was taken aback by how lawmakers not only respected, but also appreciated, our remote classes. It was a lesson for everyone because education and understanding the legislative process must go on, even during a pandemic.

I initially dismissed having state lawmakers join our class discussions remotely because I thought it would defeat the purpose of direct dialogue between officials and students. But students and lawmakers reminded me the importance of education, even virtually.

Every spring I teach an upper-level night class on state or local politics. The class is unusual because it is a dual-listed course for both undergraduate and graduate students. A number of public officials have been a part of class discussions as they share their experiences of state and local government with students. There have been a variety of state representatives and senators – Democrats, Republicans; urban, suburban, rural; younger, older – as well as local lawmakers and executive officials. The class allows students to read various books and articles on state and local issues, as well as discuss concerns with actual officeholders. Connecting assigned readings with experiential learning has become the norm in higher education.

After students learn about state and local legislative processes by midterm, officials join our class discussions. Former Gov. John Rowland attended our class in early March – the last time we actually met as a class before campus closed. Students asked questions and debated points with him.

For future classes, I tried to line up several shoreline lawmakers from both chambers and both parties. But then the coronavirus closed campus and our class had to go online after spring break. I thought having officials join class discussion remotely would be problematic, but students pushed me to have the lawmakers be a part of it. And interestingly, the lawmakers were on board with joining the online class, especially as local public meetings were going online.

In late March, we had an unusual duo: State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and former state Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington. They are ideological opposites but get along very well. In previous classes, I had them together because of their past WNNH radio shows and students have been struck by their dynamic – again, they disagree on policy but are respectful of one another.

A week later, my class had a panel of Democrat state representatives, Sean Scanlon of Guilford and Dorinda Borer of West Haven, and state Sen. Catherine Osten of Sprague. This was a mix of personalities and district representation, but the three lawmakers were insightful as they explained caucus politics and decision-making.

By mid-April, Republican state Reps. Charlie Ferraro of West Haven, and Kathy Kennedy of Milford joined our class remotely. Not only did the two lawmakers provide details about chamber party politics, they also offered what it means to represent closely splintered partisan districts.

At semester’s end, my students were reflective about these class discussions. As much as books and instructors can offer various perspectives, it’s public officials that bring the legislative process alive. Students were surprised not only by how cordial the lawmakers were with one another, but also with how they make their decisions. Most importantly, students were impressed that these lawmakers were willing to engage with them virtually. I was just grateful that students and lawmakers wanted to see the course continue beyond the classroom.

But what these elected officials offered should be a reality check about our representative democracy: Remaining in touch, even remotely during a pandemic, is a necessity. Public officials must find pathways of carrying the people’s business virtually in hearings, meetings, and classrooms.

While I second-guessed having speakers for the sudden online classes, the lawmakers’ zeal and the students’ interest became paramount. Representative democracy and learning must continue. Clearly this was a teachable moment, even outside the classroom. Elected officials are representing the public and this is critical to remember during an election year.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is former chairman of the New Haven Republican Town Committee and serves on the Republican State Central Committee.

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