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Perspective | Everything you know about pandemics, you learned in 8th grade science

My entire career in education has specifically revolved around science education in North Carolina. The current COVID-19 pandemic, conversations with friends, comments on social media, and all the interactions in-between have sparked many questions inside my science teacher brain.

Whose responsibility is it to teach the general public about viruses, pandemics, and epidemics? I am perplexed that many people I speak to think viruses are actually living things. Many people do not know that viruses frequently mutate or that there are various types of viruses.

I also thought it was common knowledge that viruses and bacteria are two totally different things. I frequently catch myself thinking, “How could the general public not know this?” I specifically remember teaching and assessing some of these very concepts in my own classroom, as part of the 2004-2009 North Carolina Biology Standard Course of Study

I do realize that K-12 students do not remember every lesson or concept ever taught to them for a multitude of reasons, but we should aspire to have students grasp long-lasting, culturally relevant connections. I cannot remember who started the War of 1812, but I do distinctly remember learning about war and the various impacts war had on the United States in my history classes. I do not remember all of the characters in The Outsiders, but I remember important themes from reading the novel and others in English class.

This ongoing reflection of my own understanding of COVID-19 and the varying levels of knowledge in regards to viruses and pandemics of those around me sent me upon a journey to review the North Carolina Essential Standards. I wanted to see exactly what we expect the average graduate of North Carolina public schools to know about these concepts.

The Essential Standards are what public school teachers use to dictate their curriculum and lessons, and these standards are assessed on state exams. I specifically searched the unpacking documents on the Department of Public Instruction site for “virus, immunity, bacteria, epidemic, pandemic,” and these are the results:

Elementary school

  • First grade science — No mention 
  • Second grade science — No mention 
  • Third grade science  — No mention 
  • Fourth grade science —  No mention 
  • Fifth grade science — This is the first time that we see body systems (Standard 5.L.1.2) in the science standards, but there is no specific mention of the immune system.

Middle school

  • Sixth grade science —  no mention 
  • Seventh grade science —  “Standard 7.L.1.4 The immune system protects cells from microscopic invaders.” That is, verbatim, all that is noted.
  • Eighth grade science — 8.L.1.1 & 8.L.1.2: Bam! Everything you ever needed to know about viruses, immunity and pandemics, is taught in eighth grade. See below.

High school

  • Biology — Bio.3.4.3: Develop a cause and effect model for the role of disease agents in natural selection including evolutionary selection of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides in various species, passive/active immunity, antivirals and vaccines.

A closer look at what eighth grade science says

This Unpacking Document for eighth grade science is rich in detail pertaining to pandemics and viruses. The unpacked standards are below:

8.L.1.1 

Students know that: 

  • Microbiology as a basic science explores microscopic organisms including viruses, bacteria, protozoa, parasites, and some fungi and algae. These organisms lack tissue differentiation, are unicellular, and exhibit diversity of form and size.  
  • Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites may infect the human body and interfere with normal body functions. Some kinds of bacteria or fungi may infect the body to form colonies in preferred organs or tissues. 

 Viruses:

  • Viruses are non-living particles composed of a nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) and a protein coat.
  • Viruses need a host cell to reproduce.  
  • Viruses invade healthy cells and use the enzymes and organelles of the host cell to make more viruses, usually killing those cells in the process.  
  • Viral diseases are among the most widespread illnesses in humans. These illnesses range from mild fevers to some forms of cancer and include several other severe and fatal diseases. Transmission of these illnesses varies; some are transmitted by human contact, while others are transmitted through water or an insect bite.  
  • Vaccines and some anti-viral drugs are used to control and prevent the spread of viral diseases.

8.L.1.2

Students know that:

  • A disease outbreak happens when a disease occurs in greater numbers than expected in a community or region, or during a season. An outbreak may occur in one community or even extend to several countries. It can last from days to years. Sometimes a single case of a contagious disease is considered an outbreak. This may be true if it is an unknown disease, new to a community, or has been absent from a population for a long time. An outbreak can be considered as an epidemic or pandemic.
  • Epidemic and pandemic are similar terms that refer to the spread of infectious diseases among a population. There are two main differences between epidemic and pandemic. The term pandemic normally is used to indicate a far higher number of people affected than an epidemic. Pandemic also refers to a much larger region being affected. In the most extreme case, the entire global population would be affected by a pandemic.
  • The terms epidemic and pandemic usually refer to the rate of infection, the area that is affected, or both. An epidemic is defined as an illness or health-related issue that is showing up in more cases than would normally be expected. It occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people. In 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic took the lives of nearly 800 people worldwide.
  • In the case of a pandemic, even more of the population is affected than in an epidemic. A pandemic typically is in a widespread area (usually worldwide) rather than being confined to a particular location or region and affects global populations. An epidemic is not worldwide.
    • For example, malaria can reach epidemic levels in regions of Africa but is not a threat globally. Whereas a flu strain can begin locally (epidemic) but eventually spread globally (pandemic). This is not unusual for a new virus, because if people have not been exposed to the virus before, their immune systems are not ready to fight it off, and more people become ill.
    • Swine flu started in Mexico City, where it was feared to lead to epidemic proportions in North America. Now that the flu has been found in New Zealand, Israel, Scotland and many other countries, it has become pandemic. The 1918 Spanish flu and the Black Plague are extreme examples of pandemics. Keep in mind, though, that a pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean millions of deaths — it means a geographically widespread epidemic.
  • Influenza pandemics have occurred more than once. Spanish influenza killed 40 to 50 million people in 1918. The Asian influenza killed 2 million people in 1957. The Hong Kong influenza killed 1 million people in 1968. An influenza pandemic occurs when: A new subtype of virus arises. This means humans have little or no immunity to it; therefore, everyone is at risk. The virus spreads easily from person to person, such as through sneezing or coughing. The virus begins to cause serious illness worldwide. With past flu pandemics, the virus reached all parts of the globe within six to nine months. With the speed of air travel today, public health experts believe an influenza pandemic could spread much more quickly. A pandemic can occur in waves. And all parts of the world may not be affected at the same time.

Teacher note: It is not necessary for students to know specific examples of epidemics and pandemics. Examples provided are for teaching purposes only.

The North Carolina eighth grade essential standards were last updated in September 2012 and are regularly and systematically reviewed and updated according to State Board of Education policy, SCOS-012. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic and our ever-changing globally connected world, will this event impact the next iteration of North Carolina Science standards?

Should we advocate for re-looping the concept of pandemic and endemic into biology standards or into other required courses in high school? A one-time exposure to the concept of pandemics in eighth grade does not likely lead to a lifelong understanding, let alone find its way into the average student’s long term memory.

Until the possibility of review and adoption of new science standards, how can science teachers explicitly point out the relevancy of the curriculum to our life and current events? I challenge science teachers to bring the eighth grade science curriculum, specifically the 8.L.1.1 and 8.L.1.2 essential standards pertaining to pandemics, to life, while making lifelong curricular connections. Your teaching today could lead to a speedy response to other pandemics in the decades to come.

Erin Burns Mehigan

Erin Burns Mehigan is an assistant principal for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, formerly serving CMS as a multi-classroom leader and high school science teacher.