Teaching coronavirus: why professors are writing it into their lesson plans

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Susan Snyder looks at the professors who are already implementing the impact of coronavirus and Covid-19 into their teaching at Business School and across higher education

When Brian DeHaven learned last month that he would teach his virology class remotely for the rest of the semester, he asked students whether they wanted to continue the regular curriculum or focus on the pandemic.

They chose the pandemic.

‘So, the rest of the course, we will be talking about historical pandemics and comparing them with this current one we’re in,’ said DeHaven, an Assistant Professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, US.

It wasn’t such a stretch, considering that virology is the study of viruses.

But professors in other fields, from economics to environmental engineering, from art to public health and business, are pivoting their courses toward the virus, too, and looking at how it relates to their fields.

From geopolitics at Wharton to tackling virus-related engineering issues

‘I thought it would be useful to get engineering students to realize they have a role in understanding and resolving the various problems around coronavirus,’ said Charles Haas, Department Chair of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at Philadelphia’s Drexel University.

Haas wasn’t even scheduled to teach this semester, but developed the course ‘Coronavirus and Engineering’, which enrols 35 students and will look at virus-related engineering issues, such as filtration (how masks work), ventilation (keeping indoor air clean), and ‘differential equation modelling’, used in the study of disease transmission.

At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Amy Forsyth, an Associate Professor of Art, Architecture and Design, has asked students to draw comics illustrating a day in their lives during the pandemic. She drew several herself, including one titled ‘What I did today or why I’ve gained 10 pounds in coronavirus quarantine’. The first comics panel shows a big dog face, which is what she wakes up to every day, her pet Sheltie. Others show her teaching a class on Zoom, dyeing her hair, and cooking an elaborate meal.

‘This is something they will come back to,’ she said of the assignment, ‘and look at and see where they were at this particular point in their lives.’

The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) has a number of offerings, including a Wharton course; ‘Epidemics, Natural Disasters, and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty’, that looks at the impact and implications of the virus. And Penn Professor of Biology, David Roos, is focusing on the coronavirus in his course on infectious disease.

Understanding responses to the economic impact

At La Salle, Assistant Professor Adam Pellillo remembers being a college student in 2008 when the recession hit. He wanted to learn about it. Now, he’s giving students in his health economics class a similar opportunity.

‘This is going to be one of the defining economic events of the 21st century,’ he said. ‘For students of economics, it’s really important to understand the effects of the Covid-19 economic crisis and consider how governments around the world are responding to the outbreak itself and the economic impact.’

His colleague, DeHaven, began mentioning Covid-19 in his virology course early on during the semester. The last two weeks before spring break, he spent 15-30 minutes on it in each class as interest grew. One day last week, DeHaven lectured via Zoom about testing people for antibodies to the virus.

‘Why do we care so much if you have antibodies? What do we hope that means?’ he asked students. ‘Immunity,’ one correctly answered. ‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘What we’re really hoping for is that this is like a lot of other viruses, where once you get it once, you’re going to have long-lasting immunity.’ Teaching students about the virus will enable them to talk to and educate others, he said.

‘You guys can really make a difference,’ he told his students during an earlier class. ‘You’re in a virology course. We can really go in and understand a lot of this, and hopefully you can explain it to people, put some people at ease, and spread some knowledge in real time.’

This article was originally published as ‘Teaching coronavirus: Some college professors have written it into their lesson plans’ in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 13 April 2020 and is by higher education reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, Susan Snyder.

Its publication here forms part of the SoJo Exchange of Covid-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organisation dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

How to manage an organisation’s response to COVID-19

Anton Korinek offers advice to organisations and Business Schools on responding to the emerging international situation resulting from Coronavirus or COVID-19

Organisations around the world are working through how to respond to the novel coronavirus, posing one of the greatest challenges to leaders in a long time. Do they restrict travel? Doing so would have substantial financial implication, make months of preparation worthless and lower the morale of many stakeholders who enjoy travel. However, travel is what brought the coronavirus to the country in the first place — and what continues to spread it to new communities within the country.

What about instituting remote work procedures? In-person meetings and events may be a critical part of an organisation’s activities and an important part of the value it offers. Perhaps there are no known cases of the virus in a given community. However, once it does gain a foothold, social distancing is the only way to slow the spread. Carriers of the virus may unwittingly spread it for days before symptoms manifest themselves. 

Above all, one of the greatest challenges is to balance an organisation’s economic concerns with the question of what is ethically the best course of action.

How we got there

The novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It jumped from bats via an intermediate host (most likely pangolins) that was traded in live animal markets to humans. The virus has officially been named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease that it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated COVID-19). It spreads among humans via respiratory droplets from coughing as well as by touching infected surfaces. In an uncontrolled outbreak, the disease burden grows exponentially, with cases doubling approximately every six days. The incubation period, i.e. the time between when one is exposed to the virus and when one develops symptoms of disease, is from two to 14 days, with an average of five days.

Those infected usually present with a fever, a dry cough and general fatigue, frequently involving a mild form of pneumonia. About 15–20% of cases develop more severe pneumonia that requires hospitalisation, intensive care, and in many cases, mechanical ventilation. The latest World Health Organisation estimate of the fatality rate is 3.4%.

Why should organisations take action?

Some may argue that it’s up to individuals how much risk they’re willing to take. But becoming infected affects not only yourself but also endangers others, as infected individuals can spread the disease and expose their community to the substantial risks involved, up to and including premature death. There is thus a crucial ethical component to the public health precautions that individuals and organisations take. Economists call this public health aspect of infectious diseases an externality – in other words an effect on others that an individual or organisation that only cares about their own well-being is tempted to ignore. (A typical example of another type of externality is pollution – when an individual pollutes, society as a whole suffers.)

When an individual spreads the disease it does not impose any cost on them, but costs the newly infected dearly. In fact, the externalities of infectious diseases come in two forms: healthy people not taking sufficient precaution to avoid becoming infected (because they do not internalise the risks this will create for others) and exposed people not taking sufficient precaution to avoid spreading the disease.  

Others may challenge the idea of whether to try to contain the virus at all. The disease seems unstoppable — it has spread around the world in a matter of weeks. Why go to such extreme lengths and incur enormous economic costs to try to prevent the unpreventable? Aren’t we all just caught up in a bad case of mass hysteria that is even more infectious — and pernicious — than the coronavirus itself?  However, that argument neglects all the lives at risk and the extent to which an uncontrolled outbreak risks overwhelming medical resources and exacerbating the ultimate death toll. 

Disproportionate impact

What adds to the challenge on how to respond is the highly disproportionate impact of the disease on different people. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are at much greater risk of death from COVID-19 than others. For example, taking into account all the risk factors, a male in his 70s with a heart condition who contracts the virus has a risk of death that is significantly higher – perhaps in excess of 25%. (Useful information on mortality rate by demographics can be found on world statistics site Worldometer.) 

Lessons from China and Italy

The experience of regions that have dealt with large outbreaks of COVID-19 in recent weeks, chiefly Wuhan and northern Italy, suggest two lessons. 

  • First, there is no place for fatalism in epidemiology. The fraction of the population that is ultimately infected by an epidemic is actually quite responsive to mitigation efforts. Wuhan has been able to get the virus under control by imposing tight quarantine measures on its citizens. Italy followed suit recently, with the outcome yet to be determined. 
  • Second, due to the exponential nature of the spread, an uncontrolled outbreak risks overwhelming a country’s health care infrastructure. About 15–20% of identified cases require hospital care. Even in the US, an uncontrolled outbreak would quickly exhaust the capacity of existing ICUs. If this were to happen, the fatality rate of the virus would be bound to rise significantly because sick patients could no longer be adequately treated. This suggests that it is critical to try to slow down the spread to keep the number of patients at any given time more manageable. 

What we should be asking and answering

Organisations need to determine how to answer the following questions:

  • What restrictions do you impose on your organisation’s inward and outward travel and why?
  • At what point will you restrict in-person meetings and events at your organisation? 
  • Should you prepare your stakeholders for these potential changes now?
  • What can you do to make the members of your organisation aware of the externalities that they impose on others, both if they are still healthy and in case they have become exposed to the disease?

The epidemiological realities of the disease have stark implications for organisations. Decisions made now will determine the way that stakeholders will work, travel and interact with each other in coming weeks and months, and it will determine the economic losses companies will experience. And as much as the virus will affect organisations, those organisations’ reaction to it will have a crucial effect on how fast and how widely COVID-19 will spread in their communities, and how many lives will be lost to the disease. This adds a crucial ethical component to the trade-off. Balancing the economic fall-out with this ethical dimension is the most significant leadership challenge of our time.

Anton Korinek is Associate Professor of Business Administration, Darden Business School