Learning about a pandemic while living one is ‘far too real’

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Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Indresano

A meeting of professor Nancy Allen’s Plagues and Pandemics course in the fall semester.

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

For 60 students this semester, the raging pandemic is more than a force disrupting daily lives and the world economy—it’s homework. 

Those students are enrolled in Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies professor Nancy Allen’s “Plagues and Pandemics” class, a course dedicated to studying the history of infectious disease. Students in both online and hybrid sections of the course have in the past studied SARS, Ebola, the 1918 flu pandemic, and HIV/AIDS, as well as the underlying science of disease transmission. 

“We go through a lot of different pandemics and talk about what were the lessons learned and what worked and what didn’t because that’s what we do in the public health community,” Allen said.

Allen, a public health expert with a masters in public health from Tufts University and more than 20 years of experience in the field, launched the class in 2017. Now, she’s added a new module to the course: COVID-19.

Many course topics relate directly to some of the experiences students underwent this year, like quarantining and social distancing. Allen also teaches the nuts and bolts of a health crisis, like the terminology epidemiologists use and the data visualization of an outbreak. 

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To adapt to current events, Allen supplements the course material with COVID-related information. She typically uses the same case studies every semester to explore epidemiological data; this semester, she had students look at epidemiological data for COVID-19. 

Despite the course material’s fresh relevance, Allen said the class has not been dramatically changed, thanks in part to the many non-COVID focuses of the course. 

“I teach the same thing, but I add COVID,” she said. “We talk much more about airborne transmission versus respiratory droplets than I used to. I spent a lot of time talking about the social factors as it relates to people’s pre-existing conditions and parties and things like that.”

Allen decided to limit how much the class discusses COVID-19 directly, as it can be an emotionally taxing topic for students—and herself—as they live through the pandemic. Some assignments have been scrapped completely. In previous semesters, Allen gave students an assignment to envision what actions they would take as governor of a city if a flu became a pandemic, but this semester, she said, it’s “far too real.” Allen used to do regular updates on what the news was saying about the pandemic, but it has been a month since her last update.

Marlboro Institute professor Nancy Allen. (Media: Nancy Allen/Courtesy)

“Students didn’t sign up for COVID-19 class,” she said. “I have days where I don’t want to talk about it.”

When she taught the class in the spring, Allen began to look at the progress of the coronavirus in February but didn’t bring it up to students. It was only in March, when case numbers began to pick up speed, that she started to warn students about its potential.

“I was in denial myself,” she said. “I had too much faith in the system holding, and the system has not held.”

Junior Anne Rinaldi, who is taking the hybrid class to fulfill her science requirement, said the relevance of the material can be eerie at times.

“It’s hard to escape it, but for plagues and pandemics, pandemics are the whole focus of the class, so it’s definitely surreal in a way,” she said. “I probably had heard the word quarantine like once or twice before COVID happened, but it’s definitely weird to see other instances in history where quarantine was a thing being used.”

Michael Hospodarsky, who is taking the class online from Chicago, said that while the class isn’t “COVID central,” much of the information from previous disease outbreaks is still applicable. 

“With each pandemic that we talked about, there’s just different conversations about what did and didn’t work,” he said. “That really makes things interesting when comparing this class to current events, because you are kind of noticing those patterns in history.”

He said that one of the most jarring examples from the class of what not to do during a public health crisis was about Philadelphia during the 1918 flu pandemic when they refused to shut down the city and instead held a parade that turned into a superspreader event. 

“They had to dig mass graves,” he said. “It’s just baffling how we have that evidence available to us, and we still don’t put that into practice today.”

Hospodarsky added there was one lecture about the missteps of the Trump administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as delayed testing. He said this information has been eye-opening. 

“My anxiety has increased after taking this class because I found out there’s so much that I didn’t realize was done incorrectly,” he said. “This class is very upsetting when it comes to the idea that humanity is good. You want to believe that humanity is good, but then you see the real world through this class, and you’re like, wow, I didn’t realize we were so shitty at just being good people.”

Hospodarsky said he now understands concepts like the R0 of a disease, which is the expected number of cases directly caused by one case in a population where all individuals are susceptible to infection. 

“There are a lot of words that still get thrown around in the news that people just don’t understand,” he said. “Taking this class is making it easier to know what the CDC and other news channels are asking us to do.”

The most daunting challenge of this semester, Allen said, has been to try to keep politics out of the science course. In semesters past, she has shown clips of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a practice she said now feels like it carries a different connotation. 

“Something that has felt so normal to me—showing videos of Dr. Fauci in class—feels like a political activity now, and it shouldn’t,” she said. “I think that’s where I’m getting stuck, is that I’m teaching a science class, and I’m really determined to just teach it the way I’ve always taught it, to try to normalize it. But these are not normal times.”