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COVID-19 pandemic brings opportunities and enthusiasm to public health education

Public health professors and students utilize pandemic to provide real-world application in the classroom

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the research done in the University’s Department of Public Health Sciences, and that of other public health departments, is important in providing analyses and guidance to those making policy decisions. Alongside the department’s mission to “provide excellence and leadership in innovative research, education and community engagement strategies to advance clinical care, patient outcomes and population health,” its research provides important insights on public health initiatives and practices.  

The department’s teaching role has mobilized to help students get a better understanding of public health as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Paige Hornsby, associate professor of public health sciences, public health professors have incorporated lessons about the pandemic into their curriculums.

“Many of us have added new lectures or case studies specifically about COVID-19, such as what the pandemic reveals about the strengths and weaknesses of health care systems around the world or the ‘One Health’ concept of the critical links between humans, animals and the environment,” Hornsby said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

Hornsby explained that the pandemic’s relevance allows professors to utilize concepts that are normally covered in curriculums to help students better understand the pandemic. These concepts include disease transmission, the social determinants of health, emergency preparedness and response, healthcare access, global health governance and the work of the World Health Organization and the International Health Regulations — all of which are already covered in undergraduate and graduate courses.

Rajesh Balakrishnan, professor of public health sciences and social epidemiologist, noted that going forward, courses are going to use the pandemic as a point of important theory. 

“Going forward, most of the courses that we have are going to use this as a major sort of theory … to look at the epidemics and look at the responses we want, what we could do better and how we [could] respond in a better manner,” Balakrishnan said.

In addition to speaking about COVID-19 in classrooms, professors have also been making themselves available outside the classroom to help students with questions and keep them informed. Hornsby noted that her colleague Kathryn Quissell — assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences — has created a COVID-19 Academic Resource Center where students can access and add articles and links concerning the state of the pandemic. Quissell also leads weekly discussions about the pandemic with students in the program.

Additionally, a group of students have launched their own COVID-19 podcast called “This Is Viral” — which just released its sixth episode Saturday — through the COVID-19 Academic Resource Center. Another group of students have started a chapter of the COVID-19 Student Service Corps at the University, which promotes social distancing and addresses urgent health systems concerns through student service-learning projects. 

Hornsby and Balakrishnan both noted from personal experience that students appear very enthusiastic and eager to understand the pandemic. According to Hornsby, students want to process what is happening intellectually and emotionally as well as figure out what they can do to aid the public health field.

“Students are very engaged and interested in the pandemic,” Hornsby said. “We have the largest entering class of Master of Public Health students ever, and many of our students are doing pandemic-related work in the community — for example, with the local health department for contact tracing. Interest in our courses is also higher than ever.” 

Jeannie Taylor, Master of Public Health student and graduate of the undergraduate Global Public Health program, explained that, although public health education has always been very important, the pandemic has really put her education in context.  

“I think much of our curriculums shifted with COVID because we suddenly had a responsibility as public health professionals to better understand the virus and help our friends, families and peers make sense of a global pandemic,” Taylor said. “COVID has irreparably changed the society that we live in, and we all now have first-hand experience in how public health affects everyone.” 

For Taylor, living through this pandemic has really opened her eyes to the effects of public health decisions on the human condition and why public health decisions are very complicated. 

She believes that her educational track has been the biggest resource in staying informed about the pandemic. Not only does COVID-19 come up regularly in discussions between classmates, but students in the GPH and MPH programs are taught to understand scientific literature, as well as write their own.

“My understanding of available resources is enriched every time I talk to my peers or professors, but my professors have developed me into an individual capable of reading and digesting information independently, which I am very thankful for,” Taylor said.

Taylor commended her professors for how well they were able to incorporate COVID-19 into the class conversations as well as how accessible they are. She explained that two things that really stood out to her were Quissell’s weekly discussions and a recorded lecture by Biology Prof. Edmund “Butch” Brodie. Brodie, who teaches Evolution & Ecology, explained important concepts that were being talked about on the news. She — with his permission — shared the lecture with 30 other people.

“He explained how coronaviruses work, how we calculate transmission rates, what exponential growth means [and] the epidemiological reasons for social distancing, and he did so in simple terms that everyone understood,” Taylor said. “Evolution & Ecology is a required course for biology majors, so most of my peers in the room didn’t have a public health or epidemiology background and the material still made sense to everyone.” 

Balakrishnan says that he believes many people are interested in learning about the public health system, partially out of frustration. 

“People are seeing that our systems are not being used properly to deal with [an] epidemic,” Balakrishnan said.

Balakrishnan believes that, as a social epidemiologist, it is important to create conversations about public health systems and social responsibility when it comes to health. He also believes that there needs to be a development in communication tools about social response to public health concerns. He reiterated that these are the type of conversations that he plans to engage in his courses going forward.  

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