Knowledge is Power for School Communities

Apples under glass
As COVID-19 has taken its grim toll, schoolchildren across the state and around the world have been plagued with questions and worries.  “What we were hearing from our community partners is that teachers are really struggling to respond. All the kids want to talk about is COVID-19,” says Panagis Galiatsatos, the Aliki Perroti CIM Scholar and co-director of Medicine for the Greater Good, an important initiative of the Center for Innovative Medicine.

Partnering with the Smithsonian

The reach of the COVID-19 teaching series will soon expand even further, thanks to a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution that was finalized this fall. “This will give us an even more global outreach,” says Panagis Galiatsatos, the Aliki Perroti CIM Scholar.

“Our partners asked: Can you please help?’”

Galiatsatos didn’t hesitate. “It seemed obvious that Johns Hopkins should be the source schools turn to for reliable information about COVID-19,” he says. 

So, building on school connections that Medicine for the Greater Good had already established through the Lung Health Ambassadors initiative (see Breakthrough, Summer 2020), Galiatsatos worked with others across Johns Hopkins to create a COVID-19 curriculum for schoolchildren.

“What we’re hearing from teachers and superintendents is: You guys talk about science at a level we can understand. You’re providing power at a time when we all feel powerless, and hope when we feel hopeless.” — Panagis Galiatsatos

What started as a curriculum used in a handful of Baltimore City schools over the summer has now grown into a teaching series being used in 26 states (from New York to Hawaii) and in six countries, including Cypress, Guatemala, Ghana, Panama, Sudan and Tanzania. More than 90 volunteer instructors — including Johns Hopkins undergraduates; students from the schools of medicine, public health and nursing; and medical residents — have been trained to teach the classes.

Galiatsatos says the vision to create a COVID-19 school curriculum and take it beyond Baltimore schools came from Alicia Wilson, vice president for economic development at the Johns Hopkins University and Health System. “She saw the potential to bring together a cohort of the best of Johns Hopkins, experts from the schools of medicine, public health, nursing and education, to develop a curriculum that would really engage kids,” he says.

The resulting teaching series — which is offered remotely — is tailored for both elementary school children and middle and high schoolers, with 12 modules that last for 30 minutes each. Instructors spend the first part of each class leading a lesson on topics such as the physics behind face masks, mathematical models of the pandemic, and the chemistry of handwashing and hand sanitizer. Then they move to a hands-on activity and a chance for questions and answers.

“This is Medicine for the Greater Good at its very best! The schools are so appreciative, it just melts my heart,” says Galiatsatos, who has also led town hall discussions on the science of COVID-19 for some school systems. “What we’re hearing from teachers and superintendents is: You guys talk about science at a level we can understand. You’re providing power at a time when we all feel powerless and hope when we feel hopeless.”

Sara Wallam, a second-year medical student at Johns Hopkins, has completed her training and can’t wait to start teaching her first classes. “Like many other people, I’ve been worried about how some people are not taking this pandemic, and the necessary precautions, as seriously as health educators would like them to,” she says.

The COVID-19 curriculum for schools is a win-win, she says, empowering students to become health ambassadors within their communities: “This not only engages the individual students so that they will make healthier decisions for themselves, like wearing a mask, but they will take what they’ve learned and talk about it with their friends and family,” says Wallam.

Galiatsatos elaborates: “I’m a lung doctor who has been treating COVID-19 patients, and I think calling health care workers the front line is a misnomer,” he says. “I tell the students, who want to help protect others from the virus, that they are the front line of defense.”