Using COVID-19 as a Learning Opportunity

As schools prepare for the fall—whether in-person or virtually—educators are focused on student health and well-being and how they can help soothe students’ anxiety about the COVID-19 crisis. Rather than continue with the curriculum as usual, we must use the pandemic in the same way that many of us suspend our usual curricula in presidential election years to use it for all kinds of cross-disciplinary learning.
Our curriculum choices can help defuse the widespread anxiety. We can apply technology to create relevant, real-world learning experiences. The following interdisciplinary resources for history, English, math, and science maximize students’ ability to understand the world and their relation to it and reassure them that humans have weathered pandemics before and will do so again.

Finding the Written Record

When comparing contemporary responses with historical ones through the written word, it’s astonishing how little human nature has changed. Students might read a primary source such as Samuel Pepys’ 17th century diary that chronicles London’s experience with the plague. Or they might read a work from 50 years later: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. In his classes, Herbert Braun, a history professor at the University of Virginia, advises students to “keep a record—in one or more different forms of their choosing, a journal, a blog, an e-portfolio, a film, a series of artworks, a short story, poems, a series of haikus—of your life in these unprecedented days. Each perspective is valuable and adds to the whole.” Other options could include a screenplay, a graphic novel, a series of correspondence (text messages, email, letters, etc.) fictionalized or not, a newspaper, or a scrapbook.
Contemporary classics like Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) and Nobel Prize-winning José Saramago’s Blindness (1995) seem as though they were written for 2020. Students may create a dialectical journal with their reflections or further develop their global perspective by comparing the narrators' musings with statements they see in the international media, like this one by a French Parliamentarian about the political and racial dimensions of 20th century epidemics. This is a perfect time to teach students to use Google translate to access perspectives in other nations' newspapers and compare governments' efforts and results in preventing, containing, and remediating the virus.

The History of Outbreaks

Many students find the history of epidemics and their impact on society fascinating. Because the coronaviruses are zoonotic—originating in animals and transferring to humans—it is particularly apt to use the book or PBS version of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. It documents the role of the European colonizers in bringing diseases, especially zoonotic ones, to the Americas and is discussed in the PBS version in Episode 2, “The Lethal Gift of Livestock.” Students can then use the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease (2019) that details the process of how epidemiologists pinpointed COVID-19’s origin. They can construct as a group their own fictionalized but well-informed report on epidemics in the Americas as though they were eyewitness Centers for Disease Control (CDC) detectives. Students might engage in this activity to learn more about epidemics in China, India, and the ancient world, perhaps using this visualization as a starting point.
The role of epidemics in European history is well-documented. Still, sources do not agree on essential points, which allows our students to step in to form and test their hypotheses. They can create an academic poster using one of the templates available here. Students can use sources to posit the extent to which the Black Death brought about the end of feudalism. They can read this BBC article arguing the Black Death was not the plague alongside The Great Plague of London and gather evidence on both sides to make their determination. To what extent does historical knowledge change over time? How are theories developed and altered? Who decides what theory becomes accepted as the most compelling? That question is particularly relevant to the case of John Snow, regarded as the father of epidemiology for his work tracing the ground zero of cholera. Students can check out UCLA’s comprehensive site all about him and his process, and use it to map their own community’s or state’s relation to COVID-19.
The history of epidemiology reveals the regional limitations of human knowledge. An enslaved African, Onesimus, saved thousands of lives in New England from smallpox in the 1700s by sharing the practice of variolation—an immunization method—common in parts of Africa, Turkey, and China. There is evidence that the practice of vaccination originated in China or India before 200 BCE. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia provides challenging and interactive lessons as well as timelines of the history of vaccines here. How has the sharing of medical knowledge evolved, and how can artificial intelligence improve this process and advance it? How do we know what to believe?

Understanding the Curve             

The CDC’s Excellence in Curriculum Integration through Teaching Epidemiology initiative includes lesson plans and a Solve the Outbreak online game that places students in the role of a CDC investigator of epidemics around the world. The case studies, accompanied by graphs and questions, are the perfect starting point for budding researchers, physicians, and scientists and teach real world critical thinking skills.
Epidemiology is based on algebra and statistics, perfect for mathematics class. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s website for Young Epidemiology Scholars features many case studies for high school students, including “Attributable Risk Applications in Epidemiology,” which applies algebra to calculate attributable risk. More advanced students who proceed through Penn State Stats 507: Epidemiologic Research Methods will be able to understand “how epidemiologists define cases, assess exposures, and design studies to consider the impact of various factors on the health of a population” and more. Students can develop their questions to interpret, extrapolate, and engage with graphs and probability at Worldometers. Use The New York Times’ feature “What’s Going On in This Graph?” for ideas on how to use them. Don't miss the Federal Reserve resource on the Black Death's impact on the economy.

Encouraging Social Responsibility        

Mister Rogers said, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Within the limits of social distancing and sheltering in place, there is still much that students can do to contribute to their communities. There are sewing patterns, such as this one from a hospital, to make face masks for health care workers. There are people out of work who need essentials. Students can ask their local Red Cross, United Way, faith community, or other nonprofit agencies how they can help. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to engage students in applying education to construct meaning and to understand their world. Let’s make sure we use it to our full advantage.

Carolyn Kost
Carolyn Kost

Carolyn Kost is a researcher, writer, educational consultant, and author of the book, Engage!: Setting the Course for Independent Secondary Schools in the 21st Century.


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