Unit Overview
COVID-19 & Health Equity, Middle School Science

How can people help end pandemics?

Unit Summary

The unit focuses on the question How can people help end pandemics? It is designed to teach students about the COVID-19 pandemic, transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and the impacts of the pandemic on communities.

Over the course of the unit, students will study the COVID-19 pandemic in light of historical pandemics to build an understanding of the following key concepts:

• How the COVID-19 virus spreads from person to person and through communities,
• How strategies to reduce transmission of COVID-19 work,
• How the actions of individuals can help to end pandemics.

The unit also supports the development of two social emotional competencies: self awareness and social awareness.

The unit employs an inquiry-based approach and is designed for 15 class periods of instruction, with optional extensions. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, it is appropriate for use in middle school science, social studies, and health classes.

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Unit Examples

Additional Unit Information

Building Toward the Following Standards and Practices
Next Generation Science Standards: Science and Engineering Practices

Students build toward these elements for middle school:

  • Practice 1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems. 
    • Ask questions to clarify and/or refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.
  • Practice 2: Developing and Using Models. 
    • Develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena.
  • Practice 3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. 
    • Conduct an investigation and/or evaluate and/or revise the experimental design to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence that meet the goals of the investigation.
  • Practice 4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data.
    • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.
  • Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence. 
    • Construct, use, and/or present an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem. 
  • Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information  
    • Integrate qualitative and/or quantitative scientific and/or technical information in written text with that contained in media and visual displays to clarify claims and findings.
Next Generation Science Standards: Crosscutting Concepts

Next Generation Science Standards: Crosscutting Concepts. Students build toward these elements for middle school:

  • Crosscutting Concept 1: Patterns. 
    • Patterns can be used to identify cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Crosscutting Concept 3: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity. 
    • The observed function of natural and designed systems may change with scale. 
  • Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models. 
    • Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems.
  • Crosscutting Concept 6: Structure and Function
    • Complex and microscopic structures and systems can be visualized, modeled, and used to describe how their function depends on the shapes, composition, and relationships among its parts, therefore complex natural structures/systems can be analyzed to determine how they function.
  • Crosscutting Concept 7: Stability and Change
    • Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.
    • Small changes in one part of a system might cause large changes in another part.
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 
    • self-efficacy 
  • 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 
    • empathy 
What should my students know from earlier grades or units?

This unit builds on previous grade band understanding from elementary school in order to support understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic across middle school levels from 6th to 8th grade. 

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts

Students would benefit from having prior experience doing the following science and engineering practices (SEPs) at the middle school grade-band level. They include the following:

  • Asking questions and defining problems: 
    • Ask questions that can be investigated and predict reasonable outcomes based on patterns such as cause-and-effect relationships. 
    • Use prior knowledge to describe problems that can be solved.
  • Developing and using models:
    • Identify limitations of models. 
    • Develop and/or use models to describe and/or predict phenomena.
  • Planning and carrying out investigations: 
    • Evaluate appropriate methods and/or tools for collecting data.
    • Make observations and/or measurements to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence for an explanation of a phenomenon or test a design solution.  
  • Analyzing and interpreting data:
    • Analyze and interpret data to make sense of phenomena, using logical reasoning, mathematics, and/or computation. 
  • Engaging in argument from evidence: 
    • Construct and/or support an argument with evidence, data, and/or a model. 
    • Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem by citing relevant evidence about how it meets the criteria and constraints of the problem.
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information:
    • Obtain and combine information from books and other reliable media to explain phenomena.

Having students familiar with using focal crosscutting concepts (CCCs) for this unit at the middle school grade-band level would be helpful. They include the following: 

  • Patterns:
    • Similarities and differences in patterns can be used to sort, classify, communicate and analyze simple rates of change for natural phenomena and designed products.
    • Patterns can be used as evidence to support an explanation.
  • Scale, Proportion, and Quantity:
    • Natural objects and/or observable phenomena exist from the very small to the immensely large or from very short to very long time periods.
  • Systems and System Models:
    • A system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions.
    • A system is a group of related parts that make up a whole and can carry out functions its individual parts cannot.
  • Structure and Function:
    • Substructures have shapes and parts that serve functions.
  • Stability and Change:
    • Some systems appear stable, but over long periods of time will eventually change.
Unit Information
How do I support students who have been impacted by the COVID-19 virus and systemic racism?

In this unit, students build on their life experiences and previous understandings of the COVID-19 virus. Students will come to the unit with a wide range of background knowledge about symptoms and some students will have been more directly impacted than others by the COVID-19 virus in their families or communities. Some students will have experienced watching friends or family members with COVID-19 or may have been sick themselves. Some students may have been to funerals or experienced personal losses from COVID-19.  As we discuss in the unit, People of Color have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 virus, and for some students of color, systemic racism will be in the front of their mind as they watch the discrepancies between the impact on their own communities versus those of their White peers.

During this unit, acknowledge that this topic may be really difficult for some students. Remind students that emotions are real and that it’s okay to feel angry, sad, scared, and a myriad of other feelings. Identifying how we feel is one of the best tools we can use to feel regulated.  Demonstrate for students that when you feel your heart rate elevate, a pain in your gut, or a tingle up your spine, you can say to yourself, “this is me feeling angry, and my anger is valid.” Let students know that if they need to take a step outside the room or take a moment to themselves to breathe and feel their emotions, that’s always okay. If students would like to write about how they are feeling, call a family member, or speak with a school counselor, support them in doing so. Teachers modeling coping strategies can support students’ social and emotional development. 

Teaching Tolerance has a set of resources for supporting students through the COVID-19 pandemic, which may be helpful: https://www.tolerance.org/supporting-students-through-coronavirus

How do I support students who do not believe the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency?

Some students may perceive the COVID-19 virus as not serious, not real, or not a public health emergency. The disconnect between students’ beliefs and science may cause discomfort in class. Ensure students that in this class, we are examining data and looking at evidence from the science of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will use the data to ground every conclusion we draw about the pandemic and we will look closely at communities that have been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We will hear different perspectives from people and try to consider those perspectives to see how others are making meaning from their experiences. Remind students to support their ideas with evidence and data from science.

How do I support classroom discussions?

It is unlikely that this will be the first unit of the school year and when you use this unit, you and your class will have established community norms. Before you start this unit, it may be productive to revisit your community norms and update them by asking students what they want to add to the list. This is important because the unit will likely bring up difficult and emotional discussions and topics for everyone, and topics about which students may differ in their beliefs.

We want to note that norms and norming activities are tricky. They can be important and helpful for having classroom discussion. Norms such as “be nice” or “be kind” are often normed for whiteness and can be used to maintain White comfort. It will be important to make sure norms in your classroom are not being used to police or silence students who may feel hurt or angry during conversations, particularly Indigenous, Black and Hispanic/Latinx students. This is important because we will be talking about structural inequalities and racism during the unit.

How do I customize language around race and ethnicity to fit within my local context?

In this unit, we refer to racial and ethnic groups using the language and terminology that is used in nationwide data reporting in order to match the data we will be looking at in the unit. We also use terms recommended by equity experts, like Indigenous and Latinx. However, local communities and people may prefer different terms to identify themselves. We suggest you take steps to understand the terms used within your community, and then use language that aligns with community-accepted identifying preferences. This may require you to modify some of the terms used on student-facing resources, such as handouts, slides, and readings.

How do I adapt this unit into 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. The unit is written in “days”, each of which is equal to a 45-minute class period. Each lesson includes a “lesson snapshot” at the beginning of the learning plan that summarizes the activities in the lesson and the estimated time. You may choose to break the “days” into different pieces, some of which could be done asynchronously. You may also choose to combine “days” of instruction if you are teaching on a block schedule. 

The following sections provide 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) will be referenced throughout the unit, so you’ll need a way to link back to them or reshare them in your virtual learning space.

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 and post the discussion prompt(s) in the chat so everyone can refer to them. 

Collecting Shared Class Ideas

Many lessons call for “chart paper and markers”. 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 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).

If you are looking for additional resources, please review OpenSciEd’s Staying Grounded While Teaching Remote: https://www.openscied.org/remote-teaching/ 

Unit Acknowledgements
Unit Development Team
  • Katie Van Horne, Unit Lead, Concolor Research
  • Lindsey Mohan, Unit Storyline and Production, BSCS Science Learning
  • Audrey Mohan, Unit Storyline and Production, BSCS Science Learning
  • Holly Hereau, Reviewer, BSCS Science Learning
  • Joy Barnes-Johnson, Writer, Morgan State University 
  • Sylvie Kademian, Writer, BSCS Science Learning 
  • Tyler Scaletta, Writer, Chicago Public Schools
  • Dan Voss, Writer, Dallas Center-Grimes High School
  • Wayne Wright, Writer, BSCS Science Learning
  • Dawn Novak, Unit Storyline, BSCS Science Learning
  • Gail Housman, Unit Storyline, Northwestern University
  • Anna Switzer, Social Emotional Learning, BSCS Science Learning
Project Leadership
  • Lindsey Mohan, Division Director, Instructional Materials Development, BSCS Science Learning
  • Danny Edelson, Executive Director, BSCS Science Learning
Production Team
  • Renée DeVaul, Copyeditor, BSCS Science Learning
  • Becca Greer, Project Coordinator, BSCS Science Learning
  • Chris Moraine, Multimedia Graphic Designer, BSCS Science Learning
  • Kate Chambers, Multimedia Graphic Designer, BSCS Science Learning
Contributing Experts

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

  • Larry Gold, SomaLogic 
  • Ashley St. John, Duke-NUS Medical School  
  • Maria Sundaram, Emory University 
  • Tiffany Clark, Seattle, WA
  • Claudia Ludwig, Institute for Systems Biology
  • Becky Howsmon, Institute for Systems Biology

The development team wants to thank the following experts who reviewed parts of the unit. 

  • Marceline DuBose, Lead Equity Specialist, Due East Educational Equity Collaborative