Teachers say that talking about COVID-19 in science class can provide real-world examples of biological processes, start conversations about information literacy, and give students a space to process their emotions about how the virus has affected their lives.
But while scientists know more now about how the virus works than at any point yet in the pandemic, potential barriers still exist to teaching COVID-focused lessons.
Topics like mask-wearing and vaccines are still highly politicized, and teachers say they have to take care to stick to the science and avoid partisan politics or the impression that they’re pushing an agenda.
That means teachers need to be responsive to community needs and fears around the virus, said Brendan Henrique, a PhD student at the University of California Berkley’s Graduate School of Education who taught middle school science through last school year. Last year, he had originally planned for his COVID unit to culminate with students creating public-health campaigns to promote the vaccine.
But as the unit went on, some of his 7th graders at Pinole Middle School in California started to tell him their families were afraid of the vaccine. “I totally understand the apprehension there,” said Henrique, citing a history of medical racism and inequities for communities of color. Pinole Middle School is majority Latino and Black.
So he pivoted—still teaching his students about the science behind the vaccine but giving them an option for the final project: They could focus their public-health campaign on the vaccine, or on COVID safety precautions more broadly, like mask-wearing.
Despite the potential for controversy, the unit was a success, Henrique said: “Throughout the pandemic, that was the highest engagement I’ve gotten from a project.”
Henrique is one of four science teachers who spoke with Education Week about how they navigated these questions last school year and what lessons they’re taking forward as they plan to teach about the pandemic in the year ahead.
Connecting COVID to science standards
Henrique had wanted to talk about COVID with his middle schoolers at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. “Vaccines were starting to become available, and there was a lot of fear and misinformation about them,” he said.
But then Henrique attended a training with STEM4Real. The professional-development nonprofit specializes in culturally relevant teaching, and the program made him feel more confident about addressing what could be an emotionally charged topic in a district where many students had lost family members to the virus. He spent his winter break designing a new unit for the second semester.
The central phenomenon that students would investigate was the mechanism behind the coronavirus vaccine: How does it work? Henrique designed the unit so that students would explore that question through middle school biology standards that touch on cells, molecules, and organisms.
“We always centered it on, we’re trying to understand this mystery of COVID,” he said. “But to understand that, we need to understand how our body is made up of cells.”
When Henrique first announced that the class would be learning about COVID, his 7th graders were wary. They told him that they had to suffer the effects that the virus was having on their lives and communities every day—they didn’t want to learn about it in school, too. But he made the case that it was important to have a better understanding of the virus. And after a few lessons, some students began to agree.
Students started to think, “Maybe we can prevent it. Maybe we can make things better,” Henrique said. “Kind of a scientific optimism. And students started to resonate with that idea.”
Combating misinformation by learning about science processes
Last school year, Kathy Biernat’s middle schoolers saw a lot of protests on the news: protests for Black lives and against police brutality, protests in favor of—or against—COVID-19 safety precautions.
One day, a student asked Biernat, who teaches middle school science at the Notre Dame School of Milwaukee, Boys Campus, in Wisconsin, about some of the signs he had seen in news coverage. He understood what some of the slogans, like “Black lives matter,” meant. But one sign tripped him up: What did it mean, he asked, to say that “science is real”?
For Biernat, the question opened up an opportunity for a lesson on scientific literacy. “We had a great conversation about, what does it mean that science is ‘real’? What does it mean to trust science?” she said.
They talked about how to evaluate a news source on television, or on the internet, asking questions like what kind of sites are legitimate and how do we know?
This year, they’re going deeper, learning about how scientists know what they know about the coronavirus. Her class is using a lesson from PBS Wisconsin that “actually goes into the cell and shows what’s going on with COVID,” she said. (Biernat consulted on the set of middle-grades materials the lesson is part of, called “Meet the Lab.”)
The lesson explores how we know about the existence of viruses and how scientists know that they make us sick. Afterward, her 5th graders could explain: Viruses need to invade cells to duplicate, and when they duplicate enough, they break cells open and spread to other cells.
Going forward, Biernat wants to focus more on evaluation of sources in her science classes. In the past, she might have given students an article about landslides, for example, and discussed the contents. But now, she wants to open that discussion further, to encompass questions like where did we get this landslide article from? How do we know it’s reliable?
“I think that’s become more important, because there’s just so much misinformation out there,” she said.
Working through feelings of hopelessness
When Jennifer Newberg told her principal she wanted to do a unit on COVID last year, she remembers him voicing some anxiety before he signed off. “He was concerned about us,” she said, and the community backlash that might come along with discussing a situation that had become so politicized.
Newberg and her co-teacher at Skyview Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colo., made their case: This was a unique opportunity to demonstrate real-world science. But also, it could give students a platform to express their feelings.
“A lot of my kids, when they came back [to school in the 2020-21 year], they felt hopeless, they felt isolated, they felt like things were never going to get better,” Newberg said.
The lessons she was using, from OpenSciEd’s COVID units, were specifically designed to attend to students’ social-emotional needs. In one activity, for example, her students learned about the 1918 influenza pandemic. “What we saw is, this has happened before and we recovered as a society,” Newberg said. That knowledge gave her students comfort, she said.
The unit also put her 8th graders in the shoes of public-health authorities, giving students an opportunity to try their hand at contact tracing. “They were like, this is so hard, this is so confusing,” she said. They talked about how contact-tracing programs have to weigh the competing priorities of privacy and community safety. “It was one of the turning points where they really got what was going on,” Newberg said.
At the end of the unit, students completed a reflection, in which they thought back on the choices they had made to protect their community and what safety precautions they would put in place if they were government officials. Again, they grasped the precarious balancing act that many communities are engaged in, Newberg said, trying to keep people as safe as possible while also listening to public opinion.
“The trend led to protecting and saving as many as they could,” Newberg said. “The unit really gave them that ‘we’ perspective.”
Using COVID to teach about inequity
At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, COVID wasn’t provoking a lot of anxiety for Linda Werts’ students.
Werts teaches high school science in Villa Grove, a small, rural community in Illinois. Case counts were still low in Douglas County at the start of last school year, and some students told her they thought that COVID was essentially the same as the flu. The toll that the virus had taken on big cities in the spring of 2020 felt far away for her classes, Werts said.
For her, teaching about COVID presented an opportunity to explain why some areas were hit harder than others and why the virus had been more deadly for communities of color in urban areas. Most of Werts’ students are white, she said.
Like Newberg, Werts also used lessons from OpenSciEd. At the high school level, the COVID unit covers disproportionate impacts on communities and the policies that have led to those inequities.
“I think they were surprised,” she said. “It really showed them that, yeah, our area is not affected, but the bigger community with services like public transportation, [where people are] working close together, they really could see that COVID was a problem.”
Werts’ students also explored how they would try to stop the spread of the virus in a high-transmission area. The unit helped move her students from apathy to empathy, she said.
At the beginning of this school year, the community is in a different situation: Douglas County saw spikes in cases last winter and this past summer. This year, Werts thinks, lessons about COVID will feel a little closer to home.
Still, she sees continued value in an approach that broadens students’ understanding of the virus’ effects and directs their focus outward, to ask: How can I help?
A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as COVID-19 Is a Science Lesson Waiting to Happen