Unit Overview
COVID-19 & Health Equity, Grades 3-5

How can we make decisions to care for ourselves, our families, and our communities?*

Unit Summary

The COVID-19 Pandemic is a clear example of how science and society are connected. This unit explores how different communities are differentially impacted by the virus through the lens of historical inequities in society. In the context of decisions their families make, students explore the basics of how the virus affects people, and design investigations to explore how it spreads from person to person, and what we can do to prevent that spread.

Students explore how some communities are more affected by COVID-19 than others and how this is related to how society has treated some people unfairly for a long time. Students and families consider how scientific knowledge changes as we learn more, and how our decisions may also need to change. Asking “Should we…?” questions helps students and their families to consider the kinds of informed action we can take to care for ourselves and others. This multidisciplinary unit includes integrated social-emotional learning and supports for teachers and families in addressing these emotional topics.

*This is a field test version of the unit and will be revised after the end of the field test and released in March 2021.


Unit Examples

Additional Unit Information

Building Toward the Following Standards and Practices
Next Generation Science Standards: Science and Engineering Practices
  • Practice 1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems
    • Ask questions that can be investigated and predict reasonable outcomes based on patterns, such as cause-and-effect relationships. (1)
    • Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (6)
  • Practice 2: Developing and Using Models. Students engage in these elements for grades 3-5:
    • Collaboratively develop and/or revise a model based on evidence that shows the relationships among variables for frequent and regular occurring events. (3) 
    • Develop and/or use models to describe and/or predict phenomena. (1, 3)
  • Practice 3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Students engage in these elements for grades 3-5:
    • Plan and conduct an investigation collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered. (4)
    • Evaluate appropriate methods and/or tools for collecting data. (4)
    • Test two different models of the same proposed object, tool, or process to determine which better meets criteria for success. (4)
  • Practice 4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data. Students engage in these elements for grades 3-5:
    • Represent data in tables and/or various graphical displays (bar graphs, pictographs, and/or pie charts) to reveal patterns that indicate relationships. (4)
    • Analyze and interpret data to make sense of phenomena, using logical reasoning, mathematics, and/or computation. (5)
  • Practice 6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. Students engage in these elements for grades 3-5:
    • Use evidence (e.g., measurements, observations, patterns) to construct or support an explanation or design a solution to a problem. (3)
    • Identify the evidence that supports particular points in an explanation. (3)
    • Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the design solution. (6)
  • Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence. Students engage in these elements for grades 3-5:
    • Compare and refine arguments based on an evaluation of the evidence presented. (2)
    • Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in an explanation. (2)
    • Construct and/or support an argument with evidence, data, and/or a model. (2)
    • Respectfully provide and receive critiques from peers about a proposed procedure, explanation, or model by citing relevant evidence and posing specific questions. (6)
    • Construct and/or support an argument with evidence, data, and/or a model. (6)
  • Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information. Students engage in these elements for grades 3-5:
    • Read and comprehend grade-appropriate complex texts and/or other reliable media to summarize and obtain scientific and technical ideas and describe how they are supported by evidence. (2, 3, 5)
    • Compare and/or combine across complex texts and/or other reliable media to support the engagement in other scientific and/or engineering practices. (2, 3)
    • Combine information in written text with that contained in corresponding tables, diagrams, and/or charts to support the engagement in other scientific and/or engineering practices. (3)
    • Obtain and combine information from books and/or other reliable media to explain phenomena or solutions to a design problem. (3, 4, 5)


Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Standards for Mathematical Practice
  • CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP4 Model with mathematics. (4)
  • CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP5 Use appropriate tools strategically. (4)
  • CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP7 Look for and make use of structure. (1)
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy: Anchor Standards
  • Speaking and Listening:
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas, and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally. (1)
  • Reading:
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. (2, 3, 5)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas. (2)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone. (2)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text. (2)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. (2)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning, as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. (2, 6)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take. (2, 3, 5)
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently. (3)
  • Language:
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. (1)
College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards
  • Determining Helpful Sources: 
    • D1.5.3-5. Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration the different opinions people have about how to answer the questions. (3, 5)
  • Processes, Rules, and Laws: 
    • D2.Civ.11.3-5. Compare procedures for making decisions in a variety of settings, including classroom, school, government, and/or society. (2)
  • Gathering and Evaluating Sources: 
    • D3.2.3-5. Use distinctions among fact and opinion to determine the credibility of multiple sources. (2)
  • Developing Claims and Using Evidence:
    • D3.3.3-5. Identify evidence that draws information from multiple sources in response to compelling questions. (2)
    • D3.4.3-5. Use evidence to develop claims in response to compelling questions. (2, 3, 5)
  • Communicating Conclusions: 
    • D4.1.3-5. Construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources. (6)
  • Taking Informed Action: 
    • D4.6.3-5. Draw on disciplinary concepts to explain the challenges people have faced and opportunities they have created, in addressing local, regional, and global problems at various times and places. (1, 6)
    • D4.7.3-5. Explain different strategies and approaches that students and others could take in working alone and together to address local, regional, and global problems, and predict possible results of their actions. (6)
Collaborative for Academic, Social, & Emotional Learning (CASEL) Core Competencies
  • Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.
    • Identifying Emotions (1, 3, 4)
  • Social Awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports. 
    • Perspective-Taking (6)
  • Responsible Decision-Making: The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. The realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the wellbeing of oneself and others. 
    • Identifying Problems (5)
    • Analyzing Situations (5, 6)
    • Solving Problems (6)
    • Evaluating (2, 6)
    • Reflecting (2, 6)
    • Ethical Responsibility (6)
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards
  • Identity: 
    • ID.3-5.5: I know my family and I do things the same as and different from other people and groups, and I know how to use what I learn from home, school, and other places that matter to me. (1, 4, 6)
  • Diversity: 
    • DI.3-5.8 I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally. (1, 2)
    • DI.3-5.6 I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect. (1, 2)
  • Justice: 
    • JU.3-5.14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others based on who they are and where they were born. (1, 4, 5)
  • Action: 
    • AC.3-5.20 I will work with my friends and family to make our school and community fair for everyone, and we will work hard and cooperate in order to achieve our goals. (6)
Unit Information
How will this unit meet the needs of my specific grade level?

This unit was designed for teachers in grades 3, 4, or 5 by providing the following supports:

  • Specific callouts throughout the teacher guide to suggest when and how to modify activities to meet the needs of students who need more support or students who are ready for more, especially in the areas of literacy, math, and science practices. 
  • A variety of texts and videos for obtaining information about the virus, marked to indicate their complexity so that teachers can choose which will best fit their students’ needs.
  • Family Tools that invite families to share in conversations and activities that will inform class discussions and provide authentic ways for students to reflect on and share their learning.
When in our school day should I teach this unit?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how science and society connect. Therefore, the content of this unit includes science, social justice, and social-emotional learning, and students use literacy and math skills to explore these ideas. As such, you may see fit to teach this unit during any of those subject times in your schedule (or a combination of them). 

This unit consists of 6 lessons which total 15 “days” of 40 minutes each. So, some teachers will plan to use about 40 minutes of their day several days a week to teach this unit. However, each teacher guide includes a “lesson snapshot” chart at the beginning, which summarizes the steps in the lesson, so you may choose to break the “days” into different pieces. For example, you might start a lesson by discussing the Family Tool responses during SEL circle time, then continue with a reading-to-learn step during your literacy block or carry out an investigation during science time.

What are Family Tools?

This COVID-19 & Health Equity Unit contains Family Tools as part of the storyline. These tools are meant to engage children and families in learning more about the COVID-19 disease and the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease. In addition, these tools are meant to help teachers learn more about families’ knowledges and practices related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 so that they are better able to support children’s learning. Families have rich knowledges, practices, experiences, identities, and relations that support children’s learning within and across contexts. Family Tools help children and educators explore and use these various dimensions as part of children’s learning in school, and they help support “partnerships for familial and communal thriving and learning across places” (Learning in Places Collaborative, 2020). Family Tools are not meant to be evaluated by classroom teachers or as something to be graded. Rather, they are learning supports for educators, children, and families themselves. Schools often hold deep deficit views of families and make problematic assumptions about families’ commitments, intellectual capabilities, experiences, and interests. Family Tools offer a path toward resisting these problematic assumptions that are often racist, classist, xenophobic, and the like.

Why does this unit include Family Tools?

Family Tools serve several purposes. Family Tools:

  • help expand the practices of creating equitable relationships and community among families, educators, and learners; 
  • ensure that family knowledges, practices, experiences, identities, questions, and wonderings help structure, guide, and facilitate children’s learning in school classrooms; 
  • create supports for children that coordinate their navigation across home and school. These tools support generative intergenerational learning in family and school contexts; 
  • help educators see and expand their understanding of the cultural and intellectual strengths of families, and help educators routinely incorporate family knowledges, practices, experiences, questions, and wonderings into instruction to more robustly support children’s learning; and  
  • model language and ideas that help support children’s learning across family and school contexts.


What types of Family Tools are part of this unit?

In the COVID-19 & Health Equity Unit there are two different types of Family Tools that serve different purposes. 

  1. Pre-Unit Family Tools provide overview information for families about the big ideas and dimensions that are reflected in the unit. They also point to resources that families might choose to explore and questions upon which they can reflect. These tools include:
  • information about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 disease that it causes, what scientists and other experts recommend people do in order to try and lessen the spread of the virus, and why learning about this is important for present and future decision-making (decisions individuals might make, decisions families might make, and decisions communities might make and why); 
  • issues of equity associated with SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, such as systemic racism related to food, housing, and healthcare, that are important for families and children to explore and discuss as part of their ethical deliberations and decision-making; 
  • children’s conceptions of illness and death and why social emotional learning is an important part of children’s learning about COVID-19; and
  • ethical deliberation and decision-making, especially as related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.
  1. Lesson-Specific Family Tools:
  • help provide a better understanding of families’ ideas, knowledges, practices, questions, and wonderings related to elements of the COVID-19 & Health Equity Unit that children and teachers can use as part of classroom instruction to support children’s learning. For example, prior to or during classroom lessons, families might engage in discussions within their families or with other families, collect information, or participate in an activity. Children then bring those ideas, questions, practices, and wonderings generated by their families to school where children and teachers can use them during instruction and classroom activity; and
  • help summarize classroom activity and discussions for families, and provide an avenue for them to generate additional reflections, questions, and wonderings. After many classroom lessons, families receive information and examples related to what children did in school and are able to reflect on that learning, as well as generate questions and wonderings related to that learning that children can then bring back to school.
How do I support classroom discussions?

Establishing classroom norms, expectations, or agreements to form a strong and safe class culture, especially around discussion, is critical for teaching this unit. You may have students participate in the creation of these norms, or you may wish to create them yourself and then share them with students. If you create the norms yourself, spend time discussing with students why each one is important, what it might look and sound like when students are “demonstrating” the norm, and how not following the norm could affect how others feel and interact with the learning community. Be careful of expectations that have often been normed for whiteness and used to maintain white comfort, such as “be nice.” It is important to make sure the norms in your classroom are not being used to police or silence students who may feel hurt or anger during conversations, particularly Black and/or Latinx students.

How do I support students who have been personally impacted by COVID-19?

Work to build relationships with your students so that they know they will not be judged for expressing their emotions. Be sure that you have established classroom norms to build a strong classroom culture within which students feel safe sharing their feelings. Do not minimize or attempt to change these emotions but listen thoughtfully and validate those feelings. We all have strong feelings—it is natural and normal. Identifying those feelings (and why we have them, if possible) helps us build our self-awareness. Model coping strategies you use (see the example in step 2 of Lesson 1). Prepare your students for how to respond if and when classmates mention that someone they know has gotten very ill or died from COVID-19. Remind your students that they should be an active listener (don’t interrupt) when a classmate shares and acknowledge that person’s feelings by saying something like, “Wow, that must have been really hard” or “I’m so sorry that happened.” Also, consider working directly with a school counselor or social worker to provide support for students who have experienced trauma related to COVID-19.

How do I support students who have experienced systemic racism?

Take the time to have foundational discussions about race in your classroom, if you haven’t already. Often, issues of race are avoided because the fact of inequity is uncomfortable to talk about and acknowledge. Think about for whom these conversations are uncomfortable and for whom these conversations are simply a reflection of their lived experience. When we bring issues of racial inequity out into the light, we can use that information to make more ethically responsible decisions. You may wish to begin by reading and discussing some of the books listed here: https://www.embracerace.org/resources/20-picture-books-for-2020 and Teaching Tolerance has substantial lesson plans available on their website, as well, at https://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources.


In this unit, we openly acknowledge examples of systemic racism and how they are contributing to the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. We should all feel angry and sad about these inequities, but exploring them could be especially emotional for students who have experienced systemic racism themselves. Encourage students to express their emotions, validating their concerns or frustrations. Continue to use Family Tools to encourage and support discussions of racism in families, asking them to highlight the strengths in families and communities and sharing those strengths in class. As you make action plans for how to care for ourselves, our families, and our communities, understand that racism and inequality work on a systems level that is the result of historic inequalities meant to privilege whiteness—and that, while individuals can make ethical choices and shift systems, change needs to happen at the systems levels. Encourage students in taking classroom-level and wider collective, systemic action.

How do I support students who do not believe that COVID-19 is a public health crisis?

Some students may perceive the COVID-19 virus as not serious, not real, or not a public health emergency. Ensure students that we are examining data and looking at evidence from the science of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will use data to support our thinking about the pandemic. We will use data as evidence that COVID-19 is negatively impacting communities because of historical injustice and systemic racism. We will hear different perspectives and try to consider those perspectives to see what others are experiencing. 

How do I adapt this unit to my remote learning environment?

This unit was designed so that students could engage with the materials in a classroom setting or at home via remote learning. Callouts in the sidebar of each teacher guide suggest supports for remote learning, including which elements of the lesson would be ideally taught during synchronous time. The unit is written in “days” of 40 minutes each, but each teacher guide includes a “lesson snapshot” chart at the beginning, which summarizes the steps in the lesson; so you may choose to break the “days” into different pieces, many of which could be done asynchronously. The following sections give specific suggestions for setting up components of the unit for remote learning. Recall that many of the artifacts you create as a class (such as the Driving Question Board, Word Wall, and Decision-Making Chart) will be referenced throughout the unit, so you’ll need a way to link back to them or reshare them in your virtual learning environment.

Leading Discussions

Due to privacy concerns and equity issues (such as unreliable internet access), not all students may choose to have their video on during virtual class discussions. Encourage students to join in the conversation via audio only, with no stigma, and invite students to reply to questions using the meeting’s chat feature. Use breakout rooms to allow for small-group or partner talk, posting the discussion prompt(s) in the chat so that everyone can refer to them. 

Collecting Shared Class Ideas

Many lessons call for “chart paper and markers (or similar digital tool)”. Your remote teaching setup may include chart paper, and you can scribe student ideas or create a consensus model as you would in your typical classroom, just on video so that students can see and participate. However, you may also choose to create a shared Google document when collecting student ideas (and you can type into it as students share aloud or give all students editing access and have them each type their ideas into a certain area of the document, such as a table row). Padlet, Jamboard, and Mural are platforms that use digital “sticky notes” and are helpful for times when everyone is contributing ideas (such as for the Driving Question Board).

Student Notebooks

Students will use notebooks as a thinking space to plan ideas before sharing, reflect personally on their feelings, and record data from investigations. These notebooks need not be shared with the teacher (unless you choose to ask for them), so it may work just fine for you to have students at home work in a regular spiral-bound notebook. However, you may also choose to set up digital student notebooks, which could be as simple as a running Google document they type in as needed or as fancy as slides that you’ve prepared for each lesson with locked objects, including prompts and space for students to respond.

Word Wall

Throughout the unit, your class will post important words on the Word Wall (see section that follows for more information). You may choose to post Word Wall words on a physical pin board or write them on chart paper in your own remote teaching space and then put it in view as students need it for reference. You also might create a shared document or slide deck that you add to as the unit goes on. Alternatively, or in addition to your class Word Wall space, students might record Word Wall words in the notebooks as their own personal glossary for the unit. Whatever setup you choose, be sure you can add drawings or pictures so that each word’s definition includes visual support.



The investigations in this unit were designed to use common household items so that students would not need specialized materials if they’re doing investigations at home. That said, you will likely want to plan asynchronous time for students to carry out the investigations because the gathering of those supplies (especially if adult help is required) might not be immediately possible.

What does it mean that this is a field test unit?

This is a field test version of this unit, which means that it has not yet been reviewed or tested sufficiently to determine that it meets the standards of NextGen Science Storylines, Learning in Places, and OpenSciEd for high quality instructional materials. The developers will be conducting a field test and obtaining reviews in the fall of 2020 and revising the materials for official release in March 2021. Because of the importance and time-sensitive nature of the unit’s subject, the developers have decided to make this version of the unit available to educators while we are reviewing, field testing, and revising it.

Given the unit’s status, the developers encourage educators to review the materials carefully and make an informed judgment about the appropriateness of the unit for use in their context. The developers seek feedback about this unit from both educators who choose to use this version and those who choose not to. All feedback received at http://bit.ly/COVID-Unit-Feedback before December 31, 2020, will be consulted in the process of revising the unit.

Unit Acknowledgements
Unit Development Team
  • Brian J. Reiser, Project Leader, NextGen Science Storylines, Northwestern University
  • Megan Bang, Project Leader, Learning in Places, Northwestern University
  • Carrie Tzou, Project Leader, Learning in Places, University of Washington, Bothell
  • Gail Housman, Unit Co-Lead, NextGen Science Storylines, Northwestern University
  • Blakely Tsurusaki, Unit Co-Lead, Learning in Places, University of Washington, Bothell
  • Jamie Deutch Noll, Writer, NextGen Science Storylines, Northwestern University
  • Leah Bricker, Writer, Learning in Places, Northwestern University
  • Ashley Stanely, Writer, Dewey School, Evanston, IL
  • Sara Schneeberg, Writer, Ogden International School of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • Dan Voss, Writer and Reviewer, Dallas Center-Grimes High School, Grimes IA 
  • Amy McGreal, Writer, James Ward Elementary School, Chicago, IL
  • Katy Fatelleh, Reviewer, The Nora Project
Contributing Experts
  • Geoffrey Baird MD, PhD, Professor and Interim Chair, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, University of Washington, Seattle
  • Rebecca G. Kaplan, PhD, Library Information Specialist, Summit Middle School, Frisco, CO

The development team consulted with the following experts to inform their development of the unit.

  • Dennis Chao, Senior Research Scientist, Institute for Disease Modeling
  • Jessica Elm, MSW, PhD, Assistant Scientist, Johns Hopkins University Center for American Indian Health
  • Cristine H. Legare, Professor, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Kerri Z. Machut, MD, Assistant Professor, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Production Team
  • Christina Murzynski, Research Study Coordinator, Northwestern University
  • Maria Gonzales, Copy Editor, Independent Contractor
  • Natalie Giarratano, Copy Editor, Independent Contractor
  • Diane Kraut, Permissions, DK Research, Inc.
  • Chris Moraine, Multimedia Graphic Designer, BSCS Science Learning