Feature Story | 12-Dec-2023

UVA students study lessons from pandemic

University of Virginia School of Data Science

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended society in March 2020, current first-year and second-year students at the University of Virginia were freshmen and sophomores in high school. Like most of the world in those early days, they could not have fully grasped how dramatically their lives would be transformed.

Three-and-a-half years later, 11 of those students spent a semester discussing lessons from that period, particularly the public health response, the complexities of ensuring policies have an equitable impact, and their own experiences with the pandemic and how they compared to those of other members of their communities.  

For Rebecca Schmidt, associate director of equity and belonging with UVA’s School of Data Science, teaching this course was about encouraging students to reflect on an unprecedented and enormously difficult time and, hopefully, learn from the decisions that were made.  

“Really challenging the difference between policy and practice and what looks good on paper versus what will resonate with the community and work effectively on the ground  —  that was the major premise for the course,” she said.  

Schmidt — who spent 12 years working for public health agencies prior to coming to UVA, including as director of partnerships and strategic initiatives with the Blue Ridge Health District when the pandemic began — added that understanding how certain policies resulted in inequities in communities across the country, and specifically in Charlottesville, was another key component of the curriculum.  

Over 14 weeks, students heard from Schmidt and a wide range of guest speakers who were deeply involved in the pandemic response, from front-line health care workers to the local officials who were making critical choices during a rapidly evolving health emergency.  

The insights from public health experts painted a concerning picture of ongoing systemic shortcomings.  

“I think what we walked away with was really that huge need for investment and infrastructure but also knowledge around how it needs to be used,” she said.  

For students, hearing from public health officials and community officials who were making decisions that had a direct impact on their lives was eye-opening.

“I thought we would just be learning about the frontline response with doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals,” said Vyshnavi Tatta, a second-year economics student, who soon realized the class would be much more all-encompassing. “We were talking about how the homeless were impacted. We were talking about how mental health was impacted. We talked a lot about the financial perspective.”

For some, the class also shaped how they thought about the pandemic response and the people who were charged with developing and executing it.  

Geoffrey Lawrence, a second-year neuroscience major, said that hearing from public health officials “allowed me to give them more grace and just have a better understanding” of the challenges they faced.  

“I can only imagine how difficult it was to actually plan the things that we received in terms of information,” he added.  

With the threat of another public health emergency not going away, and health inequities persisting, Schmidt hopes that the issues that were the core of her curriculum continue to be discussed in UVA classrooms.  

“I think we just scratched the surface of some of the challenges and learnings that we need to be taking away from that response,” she said.  

At the end of her final class, Schmidt read to students “We Were Made for These Times” by the poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a work she felt captured some of the themes and aspirations of her course.

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once,” the poem reads, ”but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” 

Contributing: Alyssa Brown

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