Learning about Viral Epidemics During a Pandemic


During the last week of class this fall quarter, my First-Year students are giving presentations on topics related to viruses. We are using PowerPoint and sharing screens—sort of old school meets Zoom school. I am really impressed by how the talks are opening up larger discussions, especially on the topic of social and economic effects of COVID-19. Here are  examples of the things they expressed.

Listening to my students

Security: Many UWB students have to work and some are supporting their families, as their parents have been laid off. We know that students with financial need and students of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID—my students feel this impact. Unemployment increases financial stress and can lead to food insecurity and even homelessness. It also can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues in our students and in their family members.

COVID disease: My students understand the many impacts of COVID. Some caught it this quarter. Some had really strong disease symptoms while others were hardly affected. Like many who catch COVID, they either got it from their families or worried about spreading it to their families. Among their parents, some are elderly or immunocompromised due to cancer treatment. Others worry because transmission to other workers in the family could cripple family finances. This is stressful and emotional for them.

How to cope: My students also have great ideas about how to cope with the pandemic—how to stay safe and keep others safe (masks, physical distancing, staying home), how to get tested for COVID, what each test can tell you and about the trade-offs between expense and speed vs accuracy. Many are ready to roll up their sleeves for the vaccine but also appreciate that they will not be first in line. They will continue to mask up and stay in their bubbles. They can give you the number for hotlines to call when the stress is getting you down.

Yearning for the “university experience”: Most students would like to return to a form of normalcy—especially the “university experience”. They want to be here on campus, meeting each other and their faculty in person, going to labs, club meetings, the library, the ARC. They understand that the current surge will delay a return to campus. They are thinking creatively, and some have expressed a desire for hybrid courses in which those who don’t feel safe coming to campus can have an online option. I estimate that at least half of my students think that being in in-person classes would help their learning process.

Thoughts on hybrid courses: The hybrid option that my students suggested could work if adequate computer access is available in the classroom. Right now, student teams meet in breakout rooms on Zoom and they could still do so if students in class and at home are all on the same Zoom call—as is done in some global learning courses. UWB currently has only a couple of rooms with computers for each student; the maximum number of computers is 32. These computer rooms could work for First Year classes, which tend to be capped at 30 students. Is it time to consider creating more workspaces with computers?

 My reflections on learning in Fall quarter 2020:

The importance of engagement: The two things that encouraged student engagement most were (1) working in teams and (2)  having targeted projects. Working in teams was helpful on its own, but adding the longer-term targeted project united each team around a common goal. What didn’t work as well were shorter projects such as team worksheets around topics such as vocabulary. While helpful at the beginning of the quarter, the shorter projects were not as engaging as the longer-term ones (a debate and a presentation). The logistics of getting to worksheets on Google, completing them as a group, then uploading a copy into Canvas to be graded took too long. For some students, just learning how to use Canvas was enough challenge, and was reliable, so we tended to use it to access group work.

What is essential? Teaching during the Time of COVID has made all of us consider this question. It has been challenging to rethink courses that work so well in person–there is plenty of  room for continued improvement. But if there are silver linings to the pandemic, one is that it has made me think more seriously about the answer to this question. It, and the Black Lives Matter movement, are making me think about more about how I can decrease inequity in the classroom and motivating me to find better ways to understand and address what is essential in my courses.

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