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We Are Living It

Learning About Infectious Disease Transmission Through a COVID-19 and Health Equity Unit

The Science Teacher—January/February 2023 (Volume 90, Issue 3)

By Lindsey Mohan, Wayne Wright, Katie Van Horne, Joy Barnes-Johnson, Holly Hereau, Arash Jamshidi, Rebecca G. Kaplan, Audrey Mohan, Dawn Novak, Michael Novak, Allysa Orwig, Ty Scaletta, Nicole Vick, and Daniel C. Voss

We Are Living It

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a real-world scenario where the science of infectious disease can be used as a resource for students’ everyday decisionmaking. Science classrooms are an obvious avenue for this learning. Nevertheless, few students have had an opportunity to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic in schools. One study showed this was about 25.1% (Campbell et al. 2021). Most students, instead, reported learning about COVID-19 by talking with peers (80.4%) or through social media (57.7%). The lack of closely aligned standards and few existing curriculum resources to draw upon presented challenges to educators. In this article, we share an example pathway for learning about infectious disease connected to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and with supports for students’ emotional well-being.

Designing learning experiences about a current problem, when scientific data and understanding of the problem is still emerging, is a challenge for teachers and curriculum developers. Data are continuously being updated and associated public health measures evolve rapidly in response. Local, state, and national guidance are not always in alignment. On the one hand, this provides a real-world, authentic space to explore the complexity of public health. On the other hand, evolving science and public health measures can sow confusion and doubt. It may seem easier to avoid these complex socioscientific issues. However, youth are eager to make sense of what is happening in their lives and wish to contribute to solutions. In the words of one student, “I’m a member of the community. I want to know how I can help.”

This interest from students and teachers for a learning experience about COVID-19 motivated us to develop a high school OpenSciEd COVID-19 and health equity unit. The goal of the unit is to provide students with information useful to understanding the impact of infectious diseases within their communities and strategies to protect the health of those within the communities, including members of their own families. A unit about the science of infectious disease transmission alone would not provide all the information youth are curious about. In initial pilots with high school students, we observed that youth had many questions about public health measures and social dimensions of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified certain populations as being particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, including racial and ethnic minority populations, people living in rural or frontier areas, people experiencing homelessness, essential and frontline workers, people with disabilities, people with substance use disorders, people in incarcerated populations, and individuals born outside of the United States (CDC 2020). Because the pandemic is affecting people and communities disproportionately, we knew students needed to explore the social and historical dimensions of the pandemic that resulted from systemic inequalities.

Overview of the unit

The OpenSciEd unit is a sequence of seven interconnected lessons that require 14 45-minute class periods (Table 1; see Online Connections). The seven lessons engage students in a storyline that helps them answer the question “What can we learn from the spread of the COVID-19 virus to protect our communities?” When we say “storyline,” we mean a story that makes sense to our primary audience, the students, because it allows them to ask questions and investigate those questions in a way that is coherent from their perspectives. Throughout the unit, they work toward a better understanding of the following ideas:

  • How the COVID-19 virus is transmitted between individuals and within communities
  • How mitigation strategies lower the chance of transmitting the COVID-19 virus between individuals and across communities
  • An understanding that there are differences in how diseases spread across different communities that cannot be explained without taking social, historical, and economic factors into account and that understanding the larger social context, policies, and practices can help us understand disproportionate impacts within and between communities
  • How others are affected during a public health crisis and how empathizing with them can help us better protect ourselves and the people in our communities

Our commitment to providing the information that young people need to understand COVID-19 and other pandemics led to an interesting discovery about the NGSS. The disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) do not directly address infectious disease transmission and public health. This unit, however, could help students work toward life science DCIs noted in Table 2 (see Online Connections). We found the science and engineering practices (SEPs) and crosscutting concepts (CCCs) to be essential tools for students to make sense of this new content (NGSS Lead States 2013).

Using COVID-19 community transmission as an anchoring phenomenon

The anchor lesson that launches the unit requires three 45-minute classes and includes four important instructional moves:

  • Connect to students’ related knowledge, ideas, and experiences.
  • Explore the phenomenon or problem together.
  • Attempt to make sense of the phenomenon or problem.
  • Ask questions about the phenomenon or problem and brainstorm how to investigate those questions.

Instructional moves 1–3 are the recipe for building a focused and productive driving question board (DQB) in move 4. In the following sections we describe how the moves unfold in the anchoring phenomenon lesson in this unit.

1. Connect to students’ related knowledge, ideas, and experiences

The anchor lesson begins with students taking stock of what they have heard, seen, read, or learned about COVID-19. Students look at how their local communities experienced COVID-19 by interacting with the Johns Hopkins data dashboard hosted on ArcGIS (

2. Explore the phenomenon or problem together

Students begin exploring the community spread of the COVID-19 virus by looking at data from different communities in three locations during the first 12 months of the pandemic: Chicago, IL; Pine Ridge, SD; and Tucson, AZ. Students notice that each location has a different number and proportion of COVID-19 cases. Students explore demographic data about each community, recording observations and patterns they notice. Students read that COVID-19 can infect anyone and that there is no link between someone’s race or ethnicity and their chance of being infected. With this knowledge, students explore links between racial data and numbers of COVID-19 cases and see that there are still patterns of racial inequities.

3. Attempt to make sense of the phenomenon or problem

Students share the patterns they observed from the data and create initial models to explain how and why communities were affected by COVID-19 differently (see Figure 1). Students compare and contrast their initial models to determine where they agree or disagree about how disease is transmitted in communities.

Figure 1
Initial models to explain and compare community transmission

Initial models to explain and compare community transmission

4. Ask questions about the phenomenon or problem and brainstorm how to investigate those questions

Students identify questions they are most curious about and, as a class, share and organize their questions on a DQB. The unit anticipates that many questions will focus on explaining the differences in transmission and health outcomes related to COVID-19. The anchor lesson concludes with students brainstorming ways to investigate the different questions posted to their DQB.

Social and emotional learning supports

One goal of this unit is to support students with social-emotional well-being. Research has shown that learning environments that build social and emotional skills are more equitable and can contribute to improvements in academic performance (Durlak et al. 2011). We developed the learning experiences to focus on two CASEL competencies (CASEL 2015) that would lead to developing self-care strategies and increased empathy for others. First, self-awareness is defined as the ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. Second, social awareness is defined as the ability to (1) take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures; (2) understand social and ethical norms for behavior; and (3) recognize family, school, and community resources and supports. Moments to reflect on social-emotional well-being and growth are included as independent writing and reflection and as class discussions. The writing prompts (Table 3; see Online Connections) provide a private place for the students to process their experiences. They are not meant to be read or graded by the teacher and should be shared only voluntarily.

Collaborative learning and inclusive class culture

This unit works best with a class culture oriented toward collaborative learning and small- and whole-group sensemaking. Students need to feel safe to share their initial ideas and evolving understandings, disagree, and productively struggle together. Before starting this unit, it is critical to create or revisit classroom community norms and expectations for partner, small-group, and whole-group activities. This is important because the unit will require students to engage productively in collaborative tasks and bring up difficult topics about which students may differ in their beliefs and experiences. Classroom norms should include norms to value students’ varied modalities, registers and home languages, and ways to interact with others or represent thinking.

To make participation more equitable and accessible for emergent multilingual learners (EMLs) and students with individualized education programs (IEPs), the unit includes the following strategies:

  • Use partner talk or individual writing before larger group discussions. This offers the opportunity for students to reflect on their own ideas and questions with a peer or in writing before going public with the larger class.
  • Encourage students to represent understandings in words or pictures and, for EMLs, to use home languages so they can draw upon the full range of their meaning-making resources.
  • Include navigation moves at the start and end of lessons to reflect on progress made and look ahead at what is coming next and why.
  • Include checklists, such as gotta-have-it checklists that are co-constructed as a class and can be used by students to guide progress in their individual work.

For additional guidance on how to set up classroom norms and support equitable participation and real classroom examples, see the OpenSciEd Teacher Handbook listed in Online Connections.

What students figure out across lessons

The series of lessons that follow the anchoring phenomenon lesson provide opportunities for students to explore the questions they generated in Lesson 1.

Lesson 2: Exploring person-to-person transmission

Lesson 2 investigates students’ questions about how the COVID-19 virus spreads from person to person. Students engage in the role of contact tracers to reconstruct patients’ activities. They discuss the tensions between the need for contact tracing and concerns about individual privacy. Students revise a model for person-to-person transmission to identify situations in which they may be at a heightened risk of transmission.

Lesson 3: Using mitigation to slow person-to-person transmission

In Lesson 3, students investigate strategies to slow transmission, such as conducting outdoor activities, using proper ventilation, cleaning surfaces, wearing masks, and using social distancing. Students make predictions about how to combine strategies to have the greatest protection and use probabilities related to the efficacy of these strategies to identify ways to reduce risk.

Lesson 4: Modeling community transmission

In Lesson 4, students model different community transmission scenarios using a NetLogo ( simulation to test situations with and without mitigation strategies (see Figure 2). Using the data collected from the simulation, students develop a conceptual model for how to prevent community transmission with mitigation efforts.

Figure 2
NetLogo model to test and gather data on transmission factors

NetLogo model to test and gather data on transmission factors

Lesson 5: Investigating case counts and public policies

In Lesson 5, students return to real-world data. Students compare graphs of case counts over time in the three communities from Lesson 1. Students annotate the real-world case count data with information about when mitigation strategies were implemented or relaxed.

Lesson 6: Exploring systemic factors that create health inequities

COVID-19 case count data alone does not tell the whole story. Students dig into social and historical factors for a deeper analysis of how certain populations and neighborhoods had very different experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Lesson 6, students examine how access to credible information and the spread of misinformation affects how people experienced the pandemic. Students consider how different social aspects of communities (e.g., access to healthcare, use of private or public transportation, and types of jobs in the community) can increase transmission risk. They develop a model for how investment and disinvestment affects communities and either increases protection or risk in a public health crisis (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3 Consensus model to community factors that increase threat and reduce protections against COVID-19

Consensus model to community factors that increase threat and reduce protections against COVID-19

Students found this lesson to be particularly valuable for their understanding of the pandemic, with 83% saying the information mattered to them and their communities. “One of the things I liked most was learning the history of defunding and the lack of access to health care,” one student said. “It was probably one of the most valuable things for me to learn because it explains so much about the city I live in.”

Lesson 7: Investigating questions on how pandemics end

The unit culminates with Lesson 7, in which students brainstorm questions and conduct research about how we could end a pandemic, focusing on questions about vaccines and herd immunity. Students and the class complete a final model revision and celebrate their learning by reviewing the questions they asked and answered throughout the unit.


Lesson 7 offers one group-level three-dimensional assessment opportunity and one individual assessment opportunity. The group-level assessment opportunity occurs as small groups of students select a question they have about the COVID-19 virus, conduct research to obtain information about their question, and summarize their findings in a written explanation. The individual assessment opportunity occurs when students complete a final model revision to explain how the COVID-19 virus, or a similar virus of their choosing, spreads from person to person throughout communities. To support students in the model revision, the class first creates a gotta-have-it checklist together, which represents the important ideas that should be represented in the model. This checklist is helpful for all students but particularly useful for students needing additional support in the modeling task. Rubrics are provided in Figure 4 (see Online Connections).

Summary of student experiences

Throughout the unit, students anonymously completed online exit tickets for individual lessons and online end-of-unit surveys. Exit ticket data for individual lessons varied between 180 to 240 completed responses. The end-of-unit survey received 203 responses.

Students found the lessons to be meaningful to them (see data from Lessons 5 and 6 in Table 4; see Online Connections). When we asked students how what they learned in lessons mattered to them or their communities, more than 83% of students responded that what they were learning had a positive impact on their understanding or would positively affect their lives. Less than 2% of students said the lessons did not matter to them. Other students skipped the item.

The end-of-unit survey revealed that most students reported they had gained knowledge of risk of exposure to COVID-19, strategies to reduce risk, and the disproportionate impacts of the disease on different communities (Table 5; see Online Connections). Students generally reported positive results for their engagement in self-awareness, social awareness, and social and emotional learning activities.


Creating a unit for students to investigate their questions about the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new design challenges for our team. We were excited to provide teachers and students with a designed-for-NGSS unit to make sense of a real-world, complex problem we are all experiencing. But we also struggled with designing a learning experience that kept pace with the rapidly unfolding science and the uneven and shifting public response to public health measures. The revisions we made from the first year of the pandemic to the second year were significant in parts of the unit tied to case counts over time, public policies, and vaccines. Other parts of the unit were less affected by the shifting landscape of the pandemic, such as how viruses transmit from person to person and how different mitigation strategies—like wearing masks—work.

The results we observed show that providing a learning experience to talk about and investigate infectious disease helped students understand that the science they learn in school can have real and meaningful implications for their lives. It also helped them see that science alone cannot solve the societal challenges we face. Many of the solutions depend on how we and our communities use the information we have to make decisions for ourselves and communities. Education is a powerful tool in response to public health crises. In the words of one student: “I want to do everything I can to stop the spread of COVID-19, and that starts by educating myself.”


The authors would like to thank Daniel C. Edelson for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this paper. We’d also like to acknowledge OpenSciEd, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing teachers and students with freely-available high-quality science curriculum. This and other projects are possible because of the generous support of multiple philanthropic organizations

Online Connections

Figure 4. Rubrics:

Table 1: OpenSciEd COVID-19 and Heath Equity high school storyline:

Table 2. Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards:

Table 3: Example social-emotional learning student reflection prompts

Table 4: Student survey data about how lessons mattered to them and their communities

Table 5: Students end-of-unit survey data in percentage

OpenSciEd COVID-19 & Health Equity. What can we learn from the spread of the COVID-19 virus to protect our communities?

OpenSciEd Teacher Handbook.

Lindsey Mohan ( is a Senior Science Educator and the Associate Director for Program Innovation, Wayne Wright is a Science Educator, Holly Hereau is a Science Educator, Audrey Mohan is a Senior Research Scientist and the Associate Director for OpenSciEd Developers’ Consortium, Dawn Novak is a Science Educator, Nicole Vick is a Science Educator, all at BSCS Science Learning, Colorado Springs, CO. Katie Van Horne is a Principal Researcher at Concolor Research, Seattle, WA. Joy Barnes-Johnson is the Supervisor of Science 6-12 with Princeton Public Schools PHS, Princeton, NJ. Arash Jamshidi is a CalTeach Program Coordinator at the University of California, Berkeley, CA. Rebecca G. Kaplan is a Library Information Specialist with the Summit School District, Frisco, CO. Michael Novak is a Senior Curriculum Developer with the Next Generation Science Storylines Project, at Northwestern University, Allysa Orwig is a Teacher and Instructional Coach with Denver Public Schools, Denver, CO. Ty Scaletta is a teacher at Alcott Elementary, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, IL. Daniel C. Voss is a Curriculum Development Specialist at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.


Campbell, K., R. Weingart, J. Ashta, T. Cronin, and J. Gazmararian. 2021. COVID-19 knowledge and behavior change among high school students in semi-rural Georgia. Journal of School Health 91 (7): 526–534.

CASEL. 2015. CASEL guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs: Middle and high school edition. Chicago: CASEL.

CDC. 2020. COVID-19 response health equity strategy: Accelerating progress towards reducing COVID-19 disparities and achieving health equity.

Durlak, J. A., R. P. Weissberg, A. B. Dymnicki, R. D. Taylor, and K. Schellinger. 2011. The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development 82 (1): 405–432. Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Biology Curriculum Equity Instructional Materials Interdisciplinary Life Science NGSS Phenomena Three-Dimensional Learning

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