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Civil Society and Federalism in Times of Crisis

Introduction: Americans have faced an enormous amount of upheaval in their daily lives as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While some of these changes have been required by law, many others have been undertaken voluntarily by people. In this eLesson, students will research specific measures that governments at the local, state, and federal level have carried out in response to COVID-19. Additionally, they will discuss ways that individuals have responded to the pandemic. In doing so, students will draw conclusions about our system of federalism, societal virtues, and how they impacted the response to coronavirus.


Warm-up (10 minutes): Have students read Handout A: What is a Federal Republic? and come up with their own definition of federalism. Then have them review the virtues listed in Handout B: Principles and Virtues Glossary and answer the following questions.

  • Why does our system of government split power between local, state, and federal levels?
  • What are some potential downsides to a system of federalism in a time of crisis?
  • What are the benefits of this individualized response?
  • What virtues do you think are essential for this system to function properly in a time of crisis? Why?

Activity (20-30 minutes): Have students fill out the graphic organizer below individually or in small groups. They should research the internet for news about the various responses that different levels of government and individuals have taken to try to help during the current pandemic. Then have students share their answers and lead a class discussion about how our society and government have responded to coronavirus. As students fill out the organizer, have them consider the following question: What do you think the best role is for each level of government during the crisis?

Level of government/society Response Benefits/Potential drawbacks
Local government
State government
Federal government
Civil society/individual

Extension Activity: Should state governments determine whether schools are required to close?