‘There Is No Guidebook for How to Process a Pandemic’
At BUMC’s John McCahan Education Day, SPH faculty and staff discussed how they addressed the educational challenges and opportunities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons they learned along the way.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, it prompted an abrupt shift in learning and working at the School of Public Health. Teaching and supporting students during these times of uncertainty and change was a challenge for all members of the SPH community.
At a recent online workshop for Boston University Medical Campus’s John McCahan Education Day, titled “The Pandemic Pivot: Responsive Educational Activities During the COVID-19 Pandemic at SPH — Accomplishments and Lessons Learned,” SPH faculty and staff discussed how they stepped up to address the challenges and opportunities of the moment and the lessons they learned and hope to bring with them into a post-COVID educational environment. Panelists included Matthew Fox, professor of epidemiology and global health; Jean van Seventer, clinical associate professor of environmental health; Eleanor Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology; Carol Dolan, clinical associate professor of community health sciences; and Ilana Schlesinger, wellness program coordinator and advisor in the Office of Graduate Student Life; and Michael LaValley, professor of biostatistics, moderated the event.
“The pandemic presented a significant challenge for science—from political pressure to trying to make policy decisions with incomplete data,” said Fox, who designed a course, called Science in a Pandemic, to help students think about the lessons learned from COVID-19. “This seemed like a great opportunity to see how science did well and how it did poorly in the face of the pandemic.”
As he began to develop the course, Fox said he quickly realized he had assigned a lot of readings, which he recognized may place a burden on students since they would be engaging with material that was playing out in their lives in real time. “I knew this course would be emotional and it was going to be a challenge to think through these topics,” he said. “But reading scientific papers was not the point of the class, it was for the students to absorb the material.”
So, Fox assigned podcasts instead.
A podcast host himself, Fox thought about how else he could use podcasts in the classroom, so he had the students create their own podcast as the final assignment in the course instead of a standard exam or presentation. “I wanted to engage students creatively while keeping their well-being as a central focus of the course,” he said.
Van Seventer also discussed a course that she and Davidson Hamer, professor of global health, created to teach about COVID from both a clinical and public health perspective. MPH students from across all certificates at SPH and interested undergraduate students enrolled in the course, titled Local and Global Health Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Each class session featured instructors from various departments across BUMC, as well as other subject matter experts in the field. Class topics ranged from the epidemiology of the virus and modeling the pandemic to communicating data and social and behavioral issues related to COVID-19.
Van Seventer said that highlighting the pandemic’s impact on the social determinants of health was core to the course, so she and Hamer made sure this focus on vulnerabilities was weaved into every class session.
Murray shared the work of the Epidemiology COVID-19 Response Corps (COVID Corps), which she co-directs with Jennifer Weuve, associate professor of epidemiology.
The COVID Corps was founded to bring together students, faculty, and other BU community members to fill research and miscommunication gaps related to the pandemic, as well as provide information about the virus to policymakers. Their main research areas have expanded to include epidemiological research, safe-opening strategy development, science communication, epidemiological best practices, data-informed guidance for policymakers, racial and ethnic disparities and community response, mental health, and disabilities and chronic conditions.
For the COVID Corps, which was largely made up of alumni and MPH student volunteers, Murray said that distributing accessible information that evolved with the current science was key. They created several resources and infographics that circulated across social media and provided educational Twitter threads to help answer the public’s questions about COVID. They collaborated on a COVID audit with Elemental, to help give science-minded feedback to everyday people on the actions they were taking (or not taking) to support public health. And they also created a YouTube channel and posted informational videos to help keep the public informed about the virus and its impacts.
Dolan presented her work around trauma-responsive teaching and a series of workshops she developed for SPH faculty to manage student concerns in the classroom.
“The whole physiology reacts to stress in very strong ways, which impacts our ability to concentrate and get work done,” said Dolan. “Over the last year, staying focused was a serious challenge. There was devastation everywhere, and it felt like we were being triggered all the time.”
The workshops Dolan created allowed faculty to understand the value of trauma-responsive teaching and to begin to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to embed this work into their classrooms and departments at SPH. Dolan said that from building the basic principles of trauma-informed care into syllabi and bringing in diverse guest speakers to having routine check-ins with students builds a pedagogy that is trauma-responsive.
“This benefits all of us and gets us to rethink and change our culture,” she says. “These systems create an environment where students, faculty, staff, and really all humans, are able to flourish and not get overwhelmed or disconnected.”
Finally, Schlesinger discussed her wellness-focused work throughout the pandemic with the SPH community.
“COVID has really increased the visibility and need for mental health and wellness, so there has been a lot more demand for me and my work,” she said. “There is no guidebook for how to process a pandemic.”
Schlesinger wanted to “help people get out of their brains and into their bodies,” so she created weekly wellness sessions centered around stress relief and skill building. Session activities included chair yoga, breathwork for anxiety, and meditation.
It was important to Schlesinger that she open all programming up to students, faculty, and staff because burnout and the stress of the moment was impacting everyone. “When faculty are burnt out, it leads students to be burnt out. And when students are burnt out, it leads faculty to start feeling really burnt out,” she says. “It can become an endless cycle, so when faculty, students, and staff can take care of themselves, it leads to a more wellness-oriented community, overall.”
Panelists agreed that throughout the pandemic, their central focus inside the classroom was student well-being and how best they could support their students, and this will continue to be their focus as they move into a post-COVID environment.
“I began to ask the question ‘why are you doing what you are doing?’” says Fox. “For every reading, exam, paper—what is the point? If the answer is to assign a grade, it is really not worth doing. Thinking about how we can minimize the burden on students while not compromising on the quality of the educational experience is really something that I want to start bringing into all of my courses.”
To watch the full recording of the panel session (Workshop C), click here.