Teaching public health during a pandemic

Earlier this year, the emerging coronavirus in Wuhan, China gave my Introduction to Public Health students a current event to monitor. Students could apply basic public health principles from the course to this situation.

Fast forward three months and we are sheltering in our homes, some grappling with financial challenges and some with their physical and mental health.

Despite the current situation, we continue studying public health – a field that has received greater recognition and new appreciation.

I struggle with how to teach this course. Do we focus exclusively on the pandemic?

We could spend every minute on testing failures, the lack of denominators that are critical to public health decision-making, confusing health messages, state social distancing guidelines, shortages of critical supplies, and the widening gaps in our public health infrastructure.

But, I need to carefully strike a balance. I have to continue covering fundamentals of public health to prepare students for upcoming sequential classes and for life in the post-COVID-19 world.

And, I’m also sensitive to their unsteadiness. I want the course to be an anchor and a diversion from all things COVID-19.

So quickly moving to an online format, we stick to the syllabus and cover topics like the government’s role in creating health laws and policies, the burden of those without primary health care on hospital emergency rooms, the history of Medicaid and Medicare, and the delivery of health care in other countries.

We make the connection that coronavirus, like other public health challenges, disproportionately affects people of color and that public health is woefully underfunded.

I try to keep things positive by uncovering some silver linings of the pandemic – like the college students replacing vulnerable adults who have historically been critical community Meals on Wheels volunteers, and the boost to telemedicine and other innovations in health care.

During our last class, what can I say to wrap up this most extraordinary semester when public health has been in the spotlight?

I feel a responsibility to acknowledge student uncertainty — is their summer internship or job intact? Will their finances permit them to continue studying at a private university? Will they return to campus this fall or continue learning remotely?

I’ll tell them what I do know — that we are living in a moment that will shape our lives forever. That I am proud of them for staying engaged and the final exam is now “open book” with an opportunity to connect course concepts to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of these unexpected learning opportunities and their resilience, I’m confident that my students will do well.

They must, for our field of public health needs them like never before.

Jody Gan, MPH, CHES®
American University, Washington, D.C.