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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: ‘Going viral’ takes on a new meaning for a new generation

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

This year marks the birth of Gen V, for viral.

Until a month ago, going viral meant it was cool. Or so says our almost 10-year-old granddaughter, nicknamed V for Genevieve. Now she says a virus is weird.

“If one person gets the virus, then another one will get the virus, and it will go on and on and on,” said V.

“Going viral” will define the experience of the world for her generation.

And it will transform society in unpredictable directions as we are forced to prioritize.

This weekend’s family priority is the North Dakota State Bantam B1 Hockey Championship and watching our grandson, Gabe, and his teammates. Sports cancellations haven’t hit North Dakota yet. And so my focus group for Gen V was a pack of the Minot Wolves’ younger sisters as we hung around the rink watching big brothers hit the ice.

Online education has been a sometimes maligned option for over a decade. It will be going mainstream for all Washington students, from elementary school to graduate school.

It’s my sixth semester teaching at WSU in two lecture classes, and we learned Wednesday we’ll be moving all classes online March 23, after spring break. Faculty have been challenged to make it work and make it meaningful.

Genevieve and her younger friends Quin and Brooklyn assured me it would be harder to learn online. Their teachers will be pleased to know these girls would miss them, but a 9-year-old who confidently picks up an unfamiliar smartphone and sends photos to her aunt would quickly adapt. New technology becomes “the way it’s always been” with remarkable speed.

Genevieve asked if it would be hard to teach online. It will be different, but there are advantages. Redesigning college courses without the limitations of fixed-seat lecture halls opens up opportunities for interactive learning. Maybe shy kids will finally ask questions when it means typing into a chat thread instead of raising a hand in front of 149 of their peers. Teachers and administrators chafing to innovate will be turned loose.

Remember when a critical bridge on Interstate 5 collapsed into the Skagit River in May 2013? The governor declared a state of emergency, and the bridge was rebuilt in less than 6 months because it had to be. WSDOT has never moved so fast. It took public and private efforts, working together effectively outside normal routines. A state of emergency is a great opportunity to bypass counterproductive rules, regulations and procedures.

When leadership supports innovation, barriers identified during an emergency can be eliminated permanently. We’ve talked about telehealth for over 20 years to better serve those isolated by distance and lack of access to specialists in rural areas. Progress has been slow because there’s been no pressure to change.

And now we’re leaning into a pandemic.

Friday afternoon, President Trump declared a national emergency. The pressure is officially on. At the live news conference making the announcement from the White House, a representative from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated the agency will now be able to “suspend regulations that could get in the way of treating patients.”

Which begs the question: Why are regulations in the way of treating patients tolerated to begin with? This is an opportunity to substantively transform health care in the United States.

Pandemics are not new, they are a natural disaster of the biological kind. What’s new is global communications allowing the spread of information and misinformation even faster than disease. The same network makes it possible for some professions to work from anywhere, even a hockey tournament in Williston, North Dakota. And as a popular coronavirus meme about priorities says maybe we’ll finally figure out what meetings really could have been a simple email after all.

Genevieve, Quin and Brooklyn think the virus is horrible and just want it to end. They know you have to wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water. And they were delighted to watch me type their names into a story for a real newspaper. Like many of their peers in Gen V, they all want to be a little bit famous. Just a little bit viral.

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