Across Emory, courses incorporate pandemic as learning opportunity

An illustration shows a world map, graphs, numbers and the virus that causes COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic may have cleared classrooms, but it has provided rich fodder for Emory professors. Courses throughout the university have pivoted to incorporate COVID-19 as a real-time learning experience.

From evaluating public health responses to monitoring the effects on air pollution, and from discussing crisis management to talking to front line workers, Emory students are learning extraordinary lessons in an extraordinary time.

From clinic to class

School of Medicine: "Pathogenesis to Pandemic"

A stethoscope sits by a laptop

For most Emory students, the campus closure and switch to online classes was a tremendous but do-able adjustment. For medical students doing their clinical rotations, it was a different story. Emory School of Medicine, like medical schools all over the country, decided in mid-March to pull students out of clinics and hospitals, largely due to shortages of personal protection equipment.

“We had no backup plan for them,” says Erica Brownfield, professor of medicine and associate dean of medical education. “They were supposed to be on clinical services, and we had no prepared curriculum to fall back on.”

What they did have was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about a pandemic in real time. Brownfield and her colleague, Varun Phadke, an assistant professor of infectious disease, put their heads together and — in less than a week — devised an elective, “Pathogenesis to Pandemic: A Case Study on the Global Effects of COVID-19.” The first class met March 23.

In a testament to Emory’s collaborative spirit, more than 20 faculty members from all over the university readily volunteered their time. In fact, the professors in the elective’s syllabus reads like an Emory Who’s Who: Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean for Emory at Grady and professor of infectious diseases, epidemiology and global health; Tom Smith, renowned economist from the Goizueta Business School; and Nadine Kaslow, professor and vice chair for faculty development in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and chief psychologist for Grady Health System, to name but a few. Phadke delivered a large part of the elective curriculum in the first two weeks himself, despite his clinical obligations.

“Everybody we asked to help with the course is beyond busy,” says Brownfield. “But they all agreed without any hesitation. Nobody we approached said ‘no.’”

Two students wearing gloves and standing apart give a "thumbs up" while posing with boxes of donated medical supplies that have signs thanking health care workers for their service.

Emory medical students have been collecting and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) such a face shields and masks, as well as sanitizing wipes, to local hospitals. The "Pathogenesis to Pandemic" elective class allows students time for community service.

Emory medical students have been collecting and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) such a face shields and masks, as well as sanitizing wipes, to local hospitals. The "Pathogenesis to Pandemic" elective class allows students time for community service.

The four-week elective is divided by themes. The first week covered the pathogenesis of COVID-19: the clinical disease, therapeutics and vaccines in development, and comparisons with other coronaviruses. The second week tackled epidemiology and the public health response to the outbreak, including modeling of a new infectious disease.

Week three, which students are in now, covers a wide variety of topics, including the economics of an epidemic, crisis management and leadership, ethics, legal issues and the allocation of scarce resources. The elective will wrap up with a look at the global effects of  the pandemic on developing countries; the role of good communication, leadership and advocacy in response to pandemics; and lessons learned thus far.

The elective allows students time for community service, organized by two medical students, Taryn De Grazia and Zachary West. Their fellow students are providing child care and running errands for deployed health care workers, helping patients sign up for mail-order medication delivery and providing testing for people who are homeless, among other things. A list of their activities can be found here.

“This pandemic is going to define their medical school experience,” says Phadke. “They are frustrated by not being able to be on the front lines and are very eager to help in any way they can.”

Word of the elective has spread beyond the 200 students currently enrolled, and students and faculty from all over the university have asked to audit it. Brownfield and Phadke hope to make the course materials available online for anyone within Emory, and perhaps anyone outside the university as well.

—Martha McKenzie

Leading during a pandemic

Goizueta Business School: "Advanced Leadership"

an illustration shows a compass with the arrow pointing to the word "leadership"

Students in the MBA Advanced Leadership course in Emory’s Goizueta Business School had already covered leadership during a crisis before COVID-19 became a crisis in Georgia. Retired Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, associate dean for leadership at Goizueta, had led the class through a case study based on his personal experience as commander of the joint task force that led the U.S. military relief effort in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

The coronavirus pandemic offered Keen and associate professor Peter Topping, who co-teaches the class, an opportunity to a look at crisis management in real time. Tom Beaty, founder and CEO of Insight Sourcing Group, was already slated as a guest speaker. He pivoted and shared what he is currently doing to handle the crisis.

“He talked about what it means to shift from an office culture to a home culture, how to take care of your employees during this time and how to make sure your business survives,” says Keen.

Tom Smith, finance professor, will lead the class on a deep dive into the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. Then students will divide up and analyze the pandemic’s impact on specific industries. They will explore questions like: Does your industry or business sector benefit from the government stimulus package? What are the effects on the supply chain affecting the industry or business? What actions should leaders consider post-crisis to recover and grow their business?

Keen says the students have responded amazingly well.

“When this first happened, there was a great deal of disappointment from students,” Keen says. “This is not the way they envisioned finishing up their MBA. But in all the Zoom classes we’ve had since we took the class online, attendance has been 100 percent.”

“The students come in having read the assigned material and ready to discuss it,” he adds. “I’ve been extremely impressed with how they are engaged and dealing with the situation.”

—Martha McKenzie

Impact on air pollution

Emory College: "Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry"


Atlanta's "Spaghetti Junction" interstate overpass is shown, almost completely empty of cars

For years, Eri Saikawa has tracked growing levels of dangerous greenhouse gases and researched ways to reduce them. As an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, she trains students to do the same. Together, they’ve held conferences, published papers and served as delegates at the annual U.N. global climate talks.

Now the COVID-19 lockdowns have slashed air pollution levels faster than Saikawa or her students could have imagined. First in China, where COVID-19 was reported in December, then across Europe, and now in the United States.

“It’s an interesting natural experiment, for sure,” says Saikawa, an expert in public policy and the science of emissions linked to global warming. “Since not every industry has shut down, it may help us to better understand what emissions are coming from what sources. That could help guide the best strategies to improve air quality when the pandemic is over.”

This natural experiment has now become the focal point for Saikawa’s class “Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry.” Previously, the Emory College students were set to do outreach projects for the Atlanta Science Festival at K-12 schools and in Atlanta neighborhoods. COVID-19 changed those plans as the festival and other events were canceled and schools and universities shifted to remote learning.

Saikawa is now asking her students to track current greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants and compare them with levels for the same period in previous years, based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and global data sources.

“The students will be among the first to study this,” Saikawa says. “That’s so much different than answering questions from a textbook.

“When you’re doing actual science, unexpected things happen that open up new questions. The students will be taking on real questions as they come up in real time.”  

At the end of the class, in early May, plans call for the students to hold a webinar so that anyone interested in learning how the novel coronavirus impacted air quality and climate change can tune in and learn from it.

Learn more about how pandemic lockdowns are creating a “natural experiment” on air pollution.

Carol Clark

Case study in real time

Rollins School of Public Health: "Evidence-Based Decision Making"

A close-up of washing hands with soap

Bob Bednarczyk and Maria Sundaram had just begun teaching their course, “Evidence-Based Decision Making,” when Sundaram noticed an interesting cluster of cases of a novel respiratory disease in China. They spent about 10 minutes in one of the first classes discussing it with students — Why might people be concerned? What were the potential similarities with SARS?

“I thought it was a nice discussion point,” says Sundaram, a post doc in the global health department in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

The course had traditionally incorporated case studies, such as the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, to explore decision making in a crisis. As COVID-19 spread across the globe, Sundaram and Bednarczyk, assistant professor of global health, decided to use the pandemic as a real-time case study.

Students were given various scenarios and asked what data they would need, where they might get it, what various factors they would need to consider. They were asked to put themselves in the shoes of a decision-maker.

“If you are in charge of resident life at Emory, what should you do?” asks Sundaram. “If you lead a county board of health what should you do? Then the students are watching the actual decisions play out in real time.”

The students are aware of the rare opportunity they are getting.

“We are able to see what we are talking about and learning in class being played out two to three weeks later in the real world,” says Kelsey Griffin, a second year MPH student.

—Martha McKenzie

Lessons from the front line

Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing: Accelerated BSN

A blurred image shows nurses and other hospital staff walking

Students in the InEmory Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program got a chance to talk with a panel of Emory Healthcare nurses who are treating COVID-19 patients.

InEmory ABSN is a year-old program built on the partnership between Emory Healthcare and the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Students in the program do all their clinical rotations in an Emory facility and they are guaranteed a job in an advanced medical/surgical unit within Emory Healthcare upon graduation.

The first cohort to go through InEmory will graduate next month into a health care system straining under a pandemic. Bethany Roberston, director of the InEmory program, and Carrie McDermott, corporate director for the nurse residency program in Emory Healthcare, thought it would be helpful for them to have a chance to ask their questions to nurses on the front lines.

The pair arranged a Zoom discussion immediately following the extended spring break. Six Emory nurses from various hospitals and departments fielded questions from the 30 InEmory students, talking frankly about rapidly changing precaution procedures, shortages of personal protective equipment and balancing work and family.

“These nursing students are going to be out there facing this in real life in about a minute,” says Robertson. “We hope this session helped prepare them.”

—Martha McKenzie

Law and disorder

Emory Law: "Franchise Law"

A business with "we are closed temporarily" on the window

As an adjunct professor at Emory Law and chief legal officer of Church’s Chicken (known as Texas Chicken outside of North America), Craig Prusher had been sharing expertise gleaned over a 30-plus year career in business and franchise law when COVID-19 turned his world upside down.

“It seems like overnight, the coronavirus became an all-consuming part of my job,” says Prusher. “I’ve been trying to stay on top of the ever-evolving legal issues involved in managing a restaurant franchise system of 1,600 restaurants in 29 states and 24 countries that is being hit with closed dining rooms, sharp declines in customers, panicked franchisees and scared employees.

“While this has been one of the worst months of my career, I decided I might as well make it a teachable moment,” Prusher explains.

So Prusher devoted one of his weekly two-hour classes to legal issues confronted by franchised quick-serve companies in a pandemic. As a franchisor, how should you deal with franchisees’ drop in sales and traffic when the government orders them to shut down part or all of their restaurants? Do you offer a franchisee royalty abatement, deferral or waiver? Can you shift advertising that has already been purchased? How do you continue to ensure quality of supplies and compliance with brand standards if no one can travel to the countries where your restaurants are?

“I didn’t plan on this class, but it turned out to be a very good summary of many of the things we have covered before in the earlier classes,” says Prusher. “The students were very engaged. It turned out to be one of our better classes.”

—Martha McKenzie

History in the making

Emory College first-year seminar: "Epidemics in History"

A historical image from 1918 shows a patient on a stretcher being placed in a Red Cross ambulance

Sometimes history courses become more timely than anyone can wish for. Sharon Strocchia’s first-year seminar, “Epidemics in History,” was supposed to cover the Black Death, 19th-century cholera outbreaks and the 1918 influenza pandemic.

“My goal was to explore the historical and biological effects of urbanization, environmental change and the human connectivity resulting from faster modes of transportation,” says Strocchia, a professor in Emory College’s Department of History. “But I also wanted to raise issues of preparedness with my students, many of whom are pre-med or plan other careers in sciences.”

Being a historian of medicine and a believer in the “it’s not a matter of if, but when” philosophy, Strocchia had been scanning the news for potential outbreaks, so she was well aware of the cluster of cases in Wuhan by the time her first class met in mid-January.

“From the first class, we decided that tracking its progression would make a good class project,” she says. “Every week, I had students compare what was being said in commercial news media with what was being reported in the scientific news.”

Emory’s spring break coincided with WHO’s designation of the coronavirus as a pandemic. As Strocchia scrambled to arrange to teach the remainder of her class remotely, she also retooled the syllabus to make direct comparisons between the experiences of 1918 and COVID-19, looking at public health policies, frontline healers and issues of fear and resilience.

“There’s no question that this has been a sad teaching moment. You never want this to happen,” says Strocchia. “But it’s also been a very illuminating teaching moment.

“It shows there’s much to be learned about health and society from studying the past. I plan to make sure we end the course with a focus on resilience.”

—Martha McKenzie

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