Helping Learners “Lean In” Intellectually During the Pandemic

Reposted with permission from edCircuit

Many baby boomers share a common, vivid memory: Most stood in a long line at school to get a sugar cube vaccine for protection against the polio epidemic. Parents were justifiably panicked. In 1952 alone, close to 60,000 children were infected, with thousands paralyzed. Swimming pools were closed, and social distancing measures were enacted. * Children with braces on their legs became a common sight, and the world learned what it was like for children to spend their days within the confines of iron lungs. But in the midst of this terrible sorrow and fear gripping the world, medical heroes emerged. Indeed, incredible learning was taking place; in fact, two vaccines were created. One required just two drops of vaccine, often on a sugar cube. Over a fairly short period of time, polio was virtually eradicated.

The grandparents of the polio generation survived a different pandemic: the Spanish Flu. Over half a million Americans succumbed to this influenza strain, with somewhere between 50 and 100 million deaths worldwide. ** The current urgency to “flatten the curve” comes in part from research about social distancing employed during the Spanish Flu. Cities that effectively kept people apart fared much better in terms of outcomes. Highly impactful lessons were learned from the Spanish Flu generation.

Lives forever altered by polio and the Spanish Flu became a chapter of personal history for those two generations. The current Covid-19 pandemic is historic as well. Students will remember this – the experience will become part of their history, and they will tell stories of the pandemic to their children. They may recount having to stay home or miss out on sports. They may recall relentless hand washings, economic hardships, and perhaps even toilet paper hoarding.

So, what does this have to do with the learning they are doing at home? While they are inside their homes engaged in online distance learning, real-world science, math and social studies history is unfolding outside their doors. Right in front of our students’ eyes, practically minute-by-minute, the magnificence of science is unfolding. How does this disease spread? Which populations are most at risk? What therapies are useful? How quickly can a vaccine be ready? How did it begin? Math is employed at every turn: percentages of increase, rates of spread, prediction models, and the distance of spacing to limit risk. Real world social studies are on display. Government students can witness the robust conversations about limiting interstate travel in the name of “flattening the curve?” Federalism, something students might normally just see discussed in a textbook, is on display, as the responsibilities between states and the federal government get hashed out. And economics is now front and center, as stimulus plans roll out.

By encouraging students to create solutions to the problems surrounding the pandemic, they can gain a sense of control over the uncertain. Rather than be passive intellectual bystanders, they can instead be active problem solvers. This virus is novel, or new, which can provide a blank drawing space for developing solutions, solidifying positions, making positive changes, and supporting community members. This is a real-world opportunity for students to step up, engage in critical thinking, and make a change.

Ideas for secondary learners:

  • Students can develop a social distancing back-to-school plan for administrators. They can examine the number of contacts from the bus ride to classes to lunch. In addition, what are the opportunities for hand washing? How can the school day and procedures be reconfigured with the pandemic in mind?
  • Learners can create recommendations to the local city council on social distancing guidelines. What lessons were learned from past pandemics, most notably the Spanish Flu?
  • Economics students can track the stock market every day. Which companies have been most impacted? What new winners are emerging? What are experts predicting for the future?
  • Government students can take a stand on restrictions being imposed on domestic travel. Is it appropriate (or legal) to track visitors to limit the spread of the disease? Is a car tag from a certain state ample reason to stop a driver?
  • Math students can calculate just how much toilet paper an individual need, the percent of increases of cases, or create bar graphs of cases in counties near them.
  • Science students can research this compelling question: Should average citizens be wearing face masks when they go out?
  • All learners can research medical heroes, such as John Snow (cholera), Jonas Salk (polio), or Albert Sabin (polio).
  • Business students can write about the remarkable partnerships between government and businesses that have emerged to wage the battle against the virus.
  • Learners can compare and contrast the science and math of past pandemics – and measures that were implemented.

Ideas for younger learners:

  • Elementary students can trace their hands and write instructions for proper hand washing. Parents might post these on social media as a PSA.
  • Students can design playgrounds utilizing social distancing.
  • Learners can craft virtual thank you notes to local doctors, nurses, and lab techs.
  • Students can create innovative ways that children can communicate with grandparents while social distancing.
  • Students can propose three changes at school that can limit the spread of disease.
  • Students can design a new coffee shop that will limit the spread of disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic is historic in its magnitude. Events will be imbedded in students’ memories and recounted to future generations. It also presents a real-world classroom of sorts, filled with rich opportunities for highly impactful learning. All of our students are scientists, mathematicians, and writers. Within the appropriateness of their age bracket, we can encourage them to solve issues, develop ideas for the community, and share what they know.

A wonderful example of a student who is intellectually “leaning in” to the crisis: A teenager in Atlanta just created a website that helps people find essential products at stores. Where did he get the idea? His grandmother and mom were having difficulty finding items in short supply. ***

He saw a problem and solved it. In the midst of uncertainty, he made life a little easier for many people struggling to find supplies. He also made a small change to pandemic history. Thirty years from now, when recounting this pandemic to his children, he can share, “Yes, things were very uncertain, but I created some ideas during that time. Let me share them with you…”





Suzy Pepper Rollins is an author, speaker, and consultant based in Athens, Georgia, who works with schools across North America to create academic success for all students. She is also the founder of Math in the Fast Lane and Her new book Teaching Vulnerable Learners: Strategies for Students who are Bored, Distracted, Discourage, or Likely to Drop Out will be released this August. Find her on Twitter@myedexpert or via

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