Public Health in the Classroom: How to Teach About Pandemics Across Subjects

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected students from all backgrounds across the country and the world. Even as they accept the “new normal” of online learning or wearing masks all day, students still have concerns about catching the virus or their family members getting sick. It is perfectly natural that class discussions will center around the pandemic

As an educator, you can provide context for current events by looking at this pandemic and past ones. COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic and won’t be the last.

Regardless of your subject, you can incorporate pandemic-related activities into public health lesson plans and help your students process their emotions and concerns about the viral spread. 

Biology, Science, and Engineering

One of the easiest places to introduce pandemic-based activities is the science classroom. The Vaccine Makers Project offers a hub of science-based lesson plans to teach kids about the immune system. There are lessons for elementary, middle, and high school students relating to viruses and vaccines. Younger students can “Meet the Germs” to learn the difference between bacteria and viruses, while older students can discuss biomedical research and animals. This site regularly updates educators with new resources and news discussions to bring context to your classroom.  

You can also turn to local science museums for lesson plan advice. The Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco has an interesting lesson plan on viral packaging. With it, middle and high school teachers can discuss how viruses spread and how they need to infect living cells in order to reproduce. With their printable model, teachers can discuss symmetry, gene therapy, and the nature of viruses in the context of pandemics. It serves as a starting point for other biology topics.   

For computer science students or advanced learners, there are ways to make your science classroom more technologically advanced. If your school has access to a 3D printer, check out this lesson plan on respirator masks by creative learning company pi-top

Pi-top partnered with Maker Mask to develop the first open-source 3D printable mask and also made a series of lesson plans related to 3D printing. You can use these lessons as the core discussion or 3D print a mask to talk about the effectiveness of different materials and masks on the market. 

Public Health Lesson Plans: How to Teach About Pandemics

Writing, Literature and the Arts

While the pandemic naturally lends itself to scientific discussion, there are also very real social and emotional consequences to social distancing and treatment for disease. You can create space in your writing classroom for students to express themselves and discuss the pandemic in writing. 

In an article for the New York Times Learning Network, Natalie Proulx, staff editor and former English language arts teacher, lists 12 ideas for pandemic-related writing projects. You can have students create journals about what they’ve been going through, including fears when returning to in-person learning. Students can also write poetry which can allow them to reflect on the past year and their feelings moving forward. 

Educators are using journalism-based lesson plans, having students write news articles, opinion pieces and video content based on public health current events. In some cases, students can submit their content for publication, either as letters to the editor of a local paper or op-eds for national news outlets.

“For teenagers, every day is an entire period in their lives—so much happens in one day, in one moment. So they’re feeling this in ways we don’t understand as adults,” says Leah Clapman, managing editor and founder of PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs. “Being able to express themselves by making videos—not just for their friends, but for people outside of that space—is really powerful and allows them to explain what that feels like.”

Literature, art and writing are all powerful tools for coping with stress and anxiety, and you can introduce literature as a mental health practice in pandemic lesson plans. Maurice Elias, Ph.D., director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University, developed a lesson plan around the song “Turn Off the News” by Lukas Nelson. 

Teachers can use this song to help students express their emotions and to annotate lyrics to better understand their meaning. Students can also create their own pandemic-related songs based on their emotions and experiences.

Public Health Lesson Plans: How to Teach About Pandemics

Math and Statistics

There are countless visuals you can pull for your math class on pandemics, public health, and the statistics surrounding them. For a good jumping-off point — or at least an introduction to a pandemic discussion — turn to the infographic designed by Visual Capitalist

The data looks at pandemics starting with the Antonine Plague in 160 B.C. which killed more than five million over 15 years, and works its way to the present. Originally published in March 2020, the data has been updated through early 2021. Use this data to contextualize the coronavirus pandemic and to introduce data visualization as a concept.

For another great resource, turn to Mathalicious, which provides real-world examples to math lessons and connects curricula to what students experience every day, meeting multiple common-core standards. The lesson starts with a 2012 video of the Ebola pandemic and then students use graphing calculators and spreadsheets to create equations that reflect the growth. The lesson is relevant to geometry classrooms but may be modified for other courses.  

There are many factors in the pandemic that are out of human control, but some are controllable. The pandemic simulator by Annenberg Learner accounts for different factors and can allow you to have a discussion about the current response and why certain safety precautions are important. With this tool, you can choose a faux-disease (like “Neasles” instead of measles) and run a simulation based on the population density, population mixing and vaccination rate. Students can change factors to create different charts reflecting the percentages of people infected, contagious and immune.

These lessons can be applied to the online classroom or the in-person learning experience. They also can be completed on student computers or with paper and pencil.   

History and Social Studies

One of the easiest ways to provide context about the COVID-19 pandemic is to introduce the 1918 flu epidemic. While this pandemic occurred more than a century ago, there are many similarities between the response and timelines. 

For a start, the educators at TeacherVision created a lesson plan for middle school students to discuss the number of deaths associated with the pandemic and to compare them with surrounding historical events (like World War I and World War II).

There are also modern pandemics you can turn to that will connect modern events to history. The Retro Report published a lesson plan relating to past epidemics that can be discussed in your history classroom. They start with a video by Dr. Larry Brilliant, who talks about his experience fighting smallpox and polio within the context of COVID-19. There are discussion questions that are applicable to the World History and U.S. History classrooms, as students discuss the global nature of pandemic response.

Educators can also use pandemics to introduce economic concepts and guide students through basic ideas that will help them in future secondary school classes and college courses.

“In our economics classes, we focused on using current events to illustrate basic economic concepts like supply and demand,” high school teacher Larry Ferlazzo explains at Ed Week. “Providing articles and video clips about product shortages or issues with the supply chain can increase relevance for students who may have experienced this in their own homes. Talking about why these shortages occur can help students understand how markets function.” 

Considering that many students and their families may have struggled to find toilet paper, masks and other essentials this past year, connecting abstract concepts to these real experiences can help students better understand and remember the material. 

Public Health Lesson Plans: How to Teach About Pandemics

Political Science

Students have also learned how science can be political and how misinformation spreads. This makes the COVID-19 pandemic and past pandemics relevant to the political science classroom. 

Science teacher Linda Rost used the pandemic to introduce topics related to research and fact-checking skills. She allowed students to pursue their interests to see where their pandemic discussions led them. A few examples of projects include looking into coronavirus in cattle (which is relevant for the ranching community in Montana) and comparing COVID-19 to the flu.

Students can create a variety of lessons with their independent learning, from class presentations to PSAs and letters to their representatives urging action on certain topics.

Rost isn’t the only educator who has formed a connection between science and fact-checking discussions. Will Reed, a science, math, and engineering teacher, shared his experience with leveraging science in the news on the National Science Teacher Association website. 

“We should consider a general framework for addressing questions students have about current world events [and] engaging students in science and engineering practices to make sense of those current events when possible,” he explains. “Appropriate initial responses include asking students to clarify the motivation for their questions and eliciting student ideas and feelings about the events.” 

Reed walks teachers through the process of addressing student concerns and creating healthy discussions. Educators can break down myths or rumors while also helping students learn. Reed’s approach can be used with his NSTA lesson plan on science concepts related to COVID-19.

It’s understandable that some educators are nervous about discussing the pandemic with their classes, especially in schools where students think the pandemic is a hoax or a mask mandate is unconstitutional. However, having these discussions are important and can fight against misinformation. 

If you worry about a potentially heated discussion, turn to the Managing Online Classes guide at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. They’ve created a section with de-escalation techniques for online learning, many of which can be applied to your in-person or hybrid classrooms. This allows your students to have healthy debates without the classroom getting out of control. 

Images by: Jasmin Merdan/©, Nophamon Yanyapong/©, StockSnap, vgnk