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April 15, 2021

Lesson Plan: Were COVID restrictions constitutional?

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Throughout the spring and fall of 2020, many states instituted lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19. These lockdowns were supported by the majority of the public, but they also drew widespread condemnation and protest. This lesson seeks to examine the constitutionality of these lockdowns and mitigation efforts and analyze who has the power to institute such precautions. 

Essential question:

Do state and federal governments have the power to institute broad lockdowns during times of crisis to protect the health of its citizens? 

Estimated time: One 50-minute class period  

Grades: 9–12

Subjects: U.S. History, U.S. Government, Civics

Warm-up activity

Watch the video of a broadcast segment from early in the pandemic and discuss the following questions as a class:

  • What actions did governments across the country take at the start of the pandemic to curb the spread?
  • Do you think any of these actions were particularly more useful than others?

Main activity

Participants will examine relevant text from the Constitution and explore the following scenarios to craft arguments about whether or not they are permissible under the Constitution. Open-ended, multiple and potentially contrasting arguments can be made for each question. While any constitutional text is fair game for this exercise, and students are permitted to research text of relevant federal law, participants may want to start with the text of the First Amendment, Ninth Amendment, as well as as the Defense Production Act.

  1. Can the federal government compel a private company to accept a contract to produce masks and ventilators?
  2. Is a “shelter at home” order/law constitutional or unconstitutional?
  3. Which branch of government would have this power? (executive, legislative or judicial)?
  4. How do you predict the executive branch might attempt to justify the constitutional authority to have this power?
  5. How do you predict the legislative branch might attempt to justify the constitutional authority to have this power?
  6. Many state governors imposed mandatory lockdowns and limited gathering sizes throughout the pandemic. Many religious organizations opposed these efforts and sued. Do you agree that these types of restrictions are a violation of the First Amendment or were they in the best interest of public safety?

After participants have conducted research on the questions, engage in a class discussion on their answers. 

Extension activity

Have students create a plan on how they would have tackled the COVID-19 pandemic if they were a governor of a major state or president. 

  1. What actions would they have taken to curb the spread? 
  2. What safeguards would they put in place to protect their citizens ? 
  3. How would they address massive unemployment and food scarcity? 
  4. What testing plan would they have? 



C3 Framework:

  • D2.Civ.5.6-8. Explain the origins, functions, and structure of government with reference to the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, and selected other systems of government.
  • D2.Civ.5.9-12. Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.

Common Core:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1(5): Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3(6): Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric

Ricky House is a U.S. history educator at an independent school in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as an Urban Fellow and Master of Arts in Teaching candidate. He has over eight years of teaching experience in school systems in Arlington, Virginia, Anne Arundel County Maryland and Washington, D.C. He has appeared on PBS NewsHour and has written several columns for NewsHour as well.

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