Policy Analysis | November 2020

Legislative Orientation for New Members Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Cody Allen

In response to the ongoing pandemic, states in the SLC region implemented a variety of measures to effectively orient newly elected members. This SLC Policy Analysis reflects information gathered from publicly available sources, including legislative calendars and news reports, as well as a survey conducted among the 15 SLC member states. Chambers for which no information could be obtained are not included.

Of note, four SLC states – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia – did not hold general legislative elections in 2020 and, therefore, have not yet had to establish new orientation protocols in response to COVID-19.

Arkansas

The Senate orientation remained in-person and included materials traditionally used during orientation. As there only were a few newly elected senators this term, the only significant difference from past practice was holding orientation one-on-one, instead of in a group setting, this year.

The House also held in-person orientation for newly elected representatives December 7-9. Unlike in years past, attendance was limited to new members and a select group of core legislators. Prior orientations during the past decade typically have included all members in some capacity. While some orientation presentations were pre-recorded, efforts were made to ensure that all presentations and materials were available online for members.

Florida

The House of Representatives' new member orientation was held using a hybrid method this year – via a combination of online classes and in-person training – with only a small portion of the agenda conducted in-person. Orientation materials were made available online, and in-person events took place November 16, prior to the start of the statutorily required organizational session. Onsite testing was made available to members and temperature checks were taken before members joined in-person events. Members were encouraged to abide by federal guidelines such as maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, and washing or sanitizing hands often. Face masks, as well as face shields and N95 masks, were made available. All continuing education courses and informational seminars, required for both returning and newly elected members, will be held via live remote sessions using WebEx. These classes are typically held in-person.

Georgia

The General Assembly held in-person orientation for new members on November 18, similar to the process used in past years. Only a few COVID-related changes were adapted. The joint orientation programming was held in the larger House chamber to allow for adequate spacing and social distancing, and face masks were encouraged. Members were then directed to either the House or Senate chambers for additional chamber-specific programming, which is similar to what has been done during prior orientations. The program was not recorded, or made available to members online, and all newly elected legislators attended in person.

Kentucky

Kentucky held its new member orientation December 3-4. Orientation took place onsite, in a legislative committee room, but with appropriate distancing. It functioned much in the same way as during a non-pandemic year. New members and orientation presenters were given the option to participate remotely.

Staff also implemented another change to this year's orientation by posting orientation materials in a secure location on the Legislative Research Commission website. This allowed members-elect to access materials prior to meetings and view them on their electronic devices during briefings.

Missouri

On November 21, the House completed its two-and-a-half-day orientation at the Capitol. This typically entails a three-day in-house orientation at the Capitol, followed by a two-week bus tour across the state to visit state facilities and publicly funded projects. This year, the bus tour was cancelled (to be rescheduled at a later date) and in-person orientation was scaled back.

Some safety measures that were implemented included: holding sessions in larger spaces, such as the House chamber and the rotunda, where attendees were required to physically distance and creating multiple, smaller breakout groups when meeting in hearing rooms.

Other measures that were implemented included: sanitizing all areas after use; asking members to sit in the same seats throughout the day; and providing hand sanitizer and disposable face masks to each member upon checking in.

The Senate held its new member orientation, in-person, on December 15. No information was available regarding pandemic-related changes.

North Carolina

The General Assembly held orientation for new members, in-person, December 1-3. Several pandemic-related precautions were implemented, such as: taking the temperatures of all individuals entering the building; observing adequate social distancing; limiting gathering for new members, if social distancing was difficult; and implementing advanced cleaning procedures for building staff.

Oklahoma

The Senate held new senator orientation on November 19, soon after the Senate Majority Caucus retreat. The only difference from a non-pandemic year orientation was that some presenters participated remotely due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols and, as the Senate did throughout the interim, attendees and presenters were given the option of virtual participation, though most attended in-person.

With only seven new senators, the orientation was hosted in a large room that easily could seat more than 40 people, six feet apart, allowing for easy social distancing for the majority of the program. The orientation content and materials were not altered, though more time was spent on the IT tools utilized this past session, and during the interim, regarding remote access to committees, floor sessions and more recent interim studies.

The House conducted new member orientation this year via a combination of in-person and remote training, providing a large number of resources electronically. As the House previously instituted recording much of its new member orientation, the pandemic impacted the process minimally, and the previous changes proved useful in allowing the House to adapt to the current environment.

South Carolina

Orientation for the House of Representative's newly elected legislators was held November 17-18. While similar to past orientations, staff took extensive precautions and the orientation program was slightly shortened – to six hours on November 17, and three hours on November 18, respectively. The program was held in a large room with all 15 new House members assigned to an individual table in order to maintain social distancing. The number of presentation segments and presenters were reduced. Most presentations were given by House staff, who maintained social distancing, and all participants, presenters, and newly elected members were encouraged to wear face masks. Hand sanitizer was made available at every desk. The House was able to cover all orientation topics while maintaining social distancing and taking other necessary precautions.

Orientation was held safely, in-person, without major changes from past practice for the six newly elected senators.

Tennessee

During its December orientation for newly elected members, the Senate did not implement any significant changes to its ordinary orientation program or process.

Texas

The Senate held its new member orientation December 1-3. Only a few minor pandemic-related changes were implemented to the in-person event. Two orientation panelists participated virtually, coronavirus testing took place at registration, and masks were required during the orientation program.

The House of Representatives held new member orientation November 30-December 4 for newly elected members.

West Virginia

The Senate currently plans to conduct an in-person orientation for its eight newly elected members February 8-9, prior to the its reconvening for the start of session on February 10. There presently are no plans for major changes from past practice, as the small number of freshmen can be socially distanced in the Senate chamber.