Teaching About Coronavirus: 3 Lesson Plans for Science, Math, and Media Literacy

By Sarah Schwartz — March 06, 2020 5 min read
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As the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, students are coming into class with misconceptions about the outbreak—and teachers are trying to figure out how best to explain the facts and debunk rumors.

Some teachers have made COVID-19 a focus of their lessons.

Discussing the origin and effects of a new virus easily lends itself to science class. But teachers in other subjects—like algebra, statistics, and media literacy—have found ways to address the topic, too.

Designing a lesson around the outbreak could be a helpful way to answer students’ questions and calm fears, said Stephen Brock, a professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at California State University, Sacramento.

And if students have misconceptions about the virus or how it spreads, providing more information could help kids more accurately gauge threat, he said.

At Fishers Junior High School in Indiana, math teacher Alison Strole had her students compare coronavirus to other viruses that have caused past epidemics, as part of a lesson on COVID-19.

Seeing that coronavirus was less contagious and caused fewer fatalities than some of those diseases was helpful for her students, said Strole, who teaches 7th and 8th graders.

“I felt like they realized, ‘Yes, this is something that we should be taking seriously.’ But also, it shouldn’t be feared as much as some of them do,” she said.

Education Week rounded up three teachers’ lessons on the virus. See what they’re doing below.

Alison Strole, middle school math teacher

Fishers Junior High School, Fishers, Ind.

Every day, Strole’s students watch CNN 10, an educational news show. After the coronavirus story kept coming up on the program for a few weeks, Strole had the idea to bring the topic into a lesson.

She started with an activity from the online lesson provider Mathalicious, which asked students to write an equation that predicts the spread of a fictional pandemic. “It ties perfectly into what we’re doing with exponential growth,” Strole said.

Then, she added her own extension to the lesson: Analyzing real coronavirus data from the World Health Organization. She pulled daily data on confirmed global cases, and then her class loaded the information into a graphing calculator.

Her students compared the pattern of the exponential equation to the coronavirus graph, and discussed why a fictional pandemic might look different from a real outbreak. They also talked about why a virus might grow more quickly at first, when people don’t know it exists and haven’t started containment efforts.

Students drew connections to the news, Strole said. One brought up Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to raise a warning about the spread of coronavirus in China early on in the outbreak, and then died of the virus last month. After seeing the rapid growth in the graphs, Strole’s students said they could understand much better why early response to the virus would be so important.

William Reed, high school science and math teacher

Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Chicago

Reed’s lesson, posted on the National Science Teaching Association’s blog, links coronavirus to the Next Generation Science Standards. Students pose questions about the virus and evaluate sources of scientific information, activities that fall under NGSS Science and Engineering Practices.

But the lesson doesn’t just stick to the science behind the virus. Reed also discusses the racism and xenophobia that’s been directed toward people of Asian descent since the beginning of the outbreak.

Students watch a news video about this targeting, and then are asked to respond to the prompt: “Based on what you know about the novel coronavirus from this lesson, explain why prejudice against people with Chinese or Asian ancestry who live in countries outside of China has no scientific basis.”

When students have questions about the world, it’s an opportunity for teachers to engage them in scientific exploration, Reed wrote, in a separate blog for NSTA. “What better way to drive student interest than by drawing from current news headlines?”

Kathleen Currie Smith, library media specialist and Sean Law, math teacher

Ledyard High School, Ledyard, Conn.
Last month, Currie Smith and Law were starting to plan a lesson on how statistics are presented in the news. The library media specialist and the math teacher (who are also cousins) often work together on activities that blend media literacy and data analysis.

Currie Smith saw the opportunity for an engaging lesson when she heard how students were talking about COVID-19. “They were just regurgitating headlines that they saw in the news,” she said. Digging into the data behind the stories “was a way to really evaluate what they were seeing on their social media feeds.”

In the lesson, Currie Smith and Law asked students to share the headlines that they see on their phones, and then asked them what kind of emotions those headlines elicited. They pointed out that while some news sources cited data to back up the information they shared, others didn’t. And they introduced students to resources where they could fact check claims themselves, like the dashboard created by The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, that tracks global cases, death rates, and recovery rates.

Using Johns Hopkins data, Law asked the students to calculate the probability of infection in different countries. Seeing the math put students’ fears—and the headlines they had just shared—in perspective, Law said.

Students acknowledged that coronavirus posed a real threat, but they also thought some of the news sources they saw had blown the threat out of proportion, Law said. Doing simple things, like washing your hands, could resolve a lot of issues, one student noted (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds).

“You could see some kids really thinking about the information and the knowledge they consumed,” Law said.

Image: Forest Hills Elementary School Principal Patrick Shuckerow (left) ''air high fives’’ a returning student to Forest Hills Elementary School after the Lake Oswego school district closed the building for several days due to a positive COVID-19 test on a school employee.—Ken Hawkins/ZUMA Wire

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.