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COVID-19: A Teachable Moment

April 06, 2020
by Colin Poitras

For students and faculty at the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH), the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a global public health crisis, it is a teachable moment.

Instructors at the school are using the outbreak as a real-time case study to teach students the important tools of public health, mathematical modeling, health policy and epidemiology.

“It’s hard not to talk about COVID-19,” said Marney White, MS ’09, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences, epidemiology (chronic diseases), and of psychiatry. “It’s the one thing on everyone’s mind and it is by far the most significant and impactful public health crisis my students have faced in their lifetimes. It only makes sense that we incorporate it into our instruction.”


White has integrated COVID-19 into many aspects of her undergraduate course–Introduction to Epidemiology and Public Health. She created a case study in which she asked students to compare COVID-19 to SARS and walked them through basic epidemiological procedures.  Students created epidemic curves, compared case definitions of SARS and COVID-19, and analyzed patterns of the outbreak via daily reports from the WHO.

To help students understand the importance of science-based public health communication during the outbreak of disease, White asked students to create infographics (with citations) explaining the importance of social distancing and how COVID-19 is different from the flu. The task was particularly important, White said, given the abundance of erroneous claims that have circulated on social media during the current crisis.

Students said they appreciated the opportunity to work on COVID-19 in real-time as it directly connected to concepts presented in class. Since the pandemic is impacting students as well, it is perhaps the ultimate expression of ‘experiential learning’.

“We have been inundated with news over the past few weeks but the skills from this class have equipped me to really interpret and understand the numbers that are being thrown around,” said Kianna Pierson, YC ‘20. “I had already planned on going into public health once I graduate but being in this class has allowed me to see how epidemiologists and other public health experts apply the skills we are learning in class to this crisis.”

Yara El-Khatib, YC ’21, said her experience in White’s class has affirmed her desire to pursue a career in public health.


“Studying epidemiology with Dr. White in the midst of this pandemic has reminded me just how critical public health is in this respect,” El-Khatib said. “I am more eager than ever to shape my career path with public health at its center. It's only going to get worse with climate change and other health threats, and someone has to be at the forefront to promote health at the societal level. I want to be one of those "someones.”

White has also adopted COVID-19 into her teachings at the graduate level, where she oversees a class in questionnaire development. Students there have developed a research questionnaire focusing on individuals’ perceptions during the pandemic and xenophobia.

“This project has granted us the opportunity to bridge our learning to outside the classroom and into the real world at unexpected speed,” William Eger, a first year MPH student, said on behalf of the students involved in the project. “Ultimately, this has given our group a chance to understand what goes into developing a valid pandemic risk perception questionnaire.”

Other professors who have modified their courses in light of COVID-19 include Kristina Talbert-Slagle, Jason Schwartz, Mark Schlesinger, Ted Cohen and Gregg Gonsalves.

Talbert-Slagle, PhD ’10, an assistant professor at the Yale Institute for Global Health and director of Global Health Studies at Yale College, recently devoted an entire lecture to various aspects of COVID-19 such as the biology of the novel coronavirus, it’s genetic origin, transmission dynamics and mode of transmission. The class of nearly 70 students was deeply engaged with questions which segued into a discussion comparing the COVID-19 virus with HIV.   

Talbert-Slagle said there were teaching moments she will never forget as major events involving COVID-19 transpired several times during her classes, including when the WHO first declared the novel coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern.

“My students were literally learning about COVID-19 as it unfolded, in real-time” said Talbert-Slagle.

COVID-19 also has become a focal point of discussion in Assistant Professor Jason Schwartz’ class in Yale College’s Program in the History of Science and Medicine. Schwartz recently discussed with students the public health challenges presented by COVID-19 and how those challenges–including the quest for a vaccine–compared to the public health response during the 1918 influenza pandemic, the ongoing Ebola outbreaks and other outbreaks around the world.  

Schwartz said the students gained greater appreciation of the struggles public health experts face in gaining public support for prevention activities such as social distancing and how public adherence to prevention measures can quickly go unheeded once a crisis subsides.

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases) Gregg Gonsalves had his class in political epidemiology review a study by mathematical epidemiologist Neil Ferguson that projected the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic under various disease scenarios. The study from Imperial College London had a major impact on how officials in the UK responded to the crisis. Gonsalves also had the class read an article he and Yale Law Professor Amy Kapczynski wrote regarding health care equity during the coronavirus pandemic for the Boston Review.

“I wanted students to think about what was going on with the pandemic from both the perspective of mathematical modeling as well as the social, economic and political side,” said Gonsalves.

Mathematical modeling has been a major part of the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic as national leaders seek guidance from scientists on how the virus might spread and its potential impact on populations. Ted Cohen, professor and co-director of the Public Health Modeling Concentration, used COVID-19 as a real-time case study to teach students in his Transmission Modeling of Infectious Diseases class.

Students used COVID-19 data to estimate the outbreak’s basic reproduction number and whether current interventions are helping to reduce spread.

“I think this crisis is helping focus the students on the importance of the course of study they have chosen,” said Cohen.  “The importance of transmission modeling for both epidemic projection and estimation of key epidemiological parameters could not be clearer.”

Professor Mark Schlesinger, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management, incorporated COVID-19 as a substantial theme in his courses this semester and expects it will continue as the academic year progresses.

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on April 06, 2020