Teaching about the Coronavirus, COVID-19

The current coronavirus epidemic, now known as COVID-19, presents an ideal opportunity for teachers to present real-life, cutting-edge, relevant science. Some of the scientific ideas, such as simple messages about hygiene, can be taught at any level, but others are particularly appropriate to middle and high school students.

Some of what there is to be learned falls squarely under existing NGSS core ideas in the life sciences, such as:

  • What is a virus? Are viruses alive? How do viruses differ from bacteria?
  • Some scientists think the infection might have originally come from snakes, others from armadillos or some other mammal. What arguments do they make? How are scientists communicating these ideas? How does “science” come to a conclusion?
  • How might a virus pass from one species to another?
  • How might modern transportation technologies allow a human virus to spread?
  • What does exponential growth look like? (For older students, what is R0?)

Then there are other topics that we have suggested should be included in the standards, but are not now, such as learning about vaccines, the importance of scientific institutions and organizations, and the impact of science on policy. For example:

  • What are vaccines, and how are they developed? Should we develop a vaccine against COVID-19, and how long will it take?
  • How does the current danger to Americans of COVID-19 compare to dangers from measles, Ebola, or the flu? Where and how can people find the answer?
  • Which organizations, like WHO and the CDC, are directing the American response to the epidemic? What do these organizations do? Are they trustworthy?
  • How are different governments, local and national, such as in China and the U.S., making policy decisions about how to handle the new virus? (Examples include: controlling social media, building hospitals, directing army medics to report to Wuhan, shutting down travel between cities, establishing quarantine sites, screening travelers.) Which of these actions do students believe are necessary? Which are effective? Who should be making such decisions?

Lastly, misinformation about science is a growing problem that teachers should teach about:

  • Are there examples of misinformation about the coronavirus that are being spread online? What are some examples (e.g., articles here and here)?

Some enterprising teachers are already beginning to develop lessons about COVID-19. For example, here is an excellent lesson from high school teacher William Reed, posted on the NSTA blog. (http://blog.nsta.org/2020/02/05/novel-wuhan-coronavirus-whats-the-real-story/ )

But note that the lesson’s links to the NGSS fall only under Science and Engineering Practices, and, with a stretch, to Crosscutting Concepts. We agree with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) that science should be taught in the context of societal and personal issues (Position Statement here), and that students need to learn more about the nature of science than is included in the NGSS (Position Statement here). It’s a shame that this lesson on COVID-19, which provides a great opportunity to teach relevant science, has to struggle so hard to “fit” with the standards.

Wouldn’t teachers and students be better off if the NGSS were revised to address some of these ideas more directly? Wouldn’t we all be better off if teaching science in the context of societal and personal issues and with greater attention to the nature of science became core parts of the NGSS, instead of separate priorities promoted by NSTA?