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Teaching about Pandemics

COVID-19 has rapidly captured our attention and altered our everyday lives. It can be difficult to dwell for long on a current event that is not related to this global pandemic. This blog post is meant for the teachers who are working to connect with students during school closures, parents looking to enrich student learning at home, and for middle school and high school students spending time online.

On March 5, the CHSSP published a Current Context on the coronavirus, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The realities of early March now seem quite distant. Recent school and work closures, community shelter-in-place directives and other drastic measures are all responses to the World Health Organization’s declaration on March 11 that COVID-19 is indeed a pandemic, a new disease that spreads worldwide. Though this particular disease is new, the conditions that created it are ancient. Moreover, pandemics have occurred throughout history. The current context issue on the coronavirus provides historical background and examples for understanding how and why people and animals share diseases, how these diseases spread, and how economic, political, environmental and social factors influence the impact of a given disease.

Below is a list of inquiry questions that connect grade-level content to today’s COVID-19 pandemic. Included beneath the grade level questions are links to history-social science resources on such topics as disease and public health, trade, agriculture, and biodiversity. A majority of the lessons come from the State Board of Education-approved Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI).

12th Grade (Gov) – How is the government responsible for slowing the spread of COVID-19? What specific government measures are appropriate to support human health and community wellbeing? What rights and responsibilities do citizens have during a pandemic, and how might these be different than during ordinary times?

12th Grade (Econ) – What specific forms of government intervention in the economy are appropriate during a pandemic? What are the cascading economic effects of a pandemic?

10th and 11th Grade History – How are today's global interconnections a factor in the spread of COVID-19? How do today’s global interconnections offer opportunities for combatting the spread of the disease? How does this pandemic impact political, economic, and social connections among the nations of the world? What role do governments play in promoting public health during times of crisis?

8th Grade History – How did scientists and physicians understand germs and the spread of disease during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How does that compare to how we understand them today? How is sanitation (clean water and safe waste disposal) important to limiting the spread of disease?

7th Grade History – What are the social and economic benefits of contact between cultures? What are the risks associated with such contact?

Studying history teaches us about the ways societies in the past have experienced highs and lows, and how these societies have responded creatively and productively with inventions, medicines, vaccines and other measures to improve human lives. As we study the past, we can also help create the sources and evidence that future historians will need in order to understand and write about the world as it existed in 2020. The UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project recently shared this excellent resource that outlines a journaling activity on today’s pandemic. This is an unusual time, but not without precedent in history. It may help to focus on the fact that before long this pandemic will also be a thing of the past.

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