East Carolina University MPH Program

Greenville, NC

“The week of March 9th, 2020, was a blur,” says Dr. Krissy Simeonsson, associate professor of pediatrics with joint appointment in public health, epidemiology concentration at the East Carolina University MPH Program. “I remember being concerned about the pandemic potential of COVID-19 since February when cases were skyrocketing in Washington and was wondering why the World Health Organization hadn’t declared a pandemic in February or early March. It seemed as though all of the pandemic prerequisites had been met. I distinctly remember things got very real on Wednesday March 11th when Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, announced they were canceling games for the foreseeable future. The pandemic declaration that followed the next day from the WHO seemed almost irrelevant. By the end of the week, things were really ramping up and everyone was asking the big questions. … Are schools going to close? Are hospitals and clinics going to be able to handle a surge of patients? Are we going to cancel other big events like concerts, conferences, conventions? With twin daughters in their senior year of high school, Friday March 13th for our family marked the last day of in-person school and the last high school soccer game of a season that barely started. So, you can imagine I didn’t pay much attention to an email sent on March 13th from the associate dean of academic affairs at our medical school asking if some of us had interest in teaching an online class to medical students who were scheduled to start their 4th-year clinical rotations. I didn’t respond to the email, thinking one of the other faculty members included in the email would take charge. Apparently, I was mistaken.”  

Dr. Simeonsson continues, “Early the next week, I received a text from my friend and colleague in student affairs who asked me if I had time to chat; by the end of our conversation, I had agreed to teach an online course for 88 medical students displaced from their clinical rotations. When I look back now on the experience, it’s hard to really understand how we pulled it off. And when I say WE, this was a group effort like none I had ever experienced before.” 

They had less than two weeks to pull together learning objectives, course content, evaluation methods, online delivery methods and faculty expertise. The course, entitled “pandemic crisis management”, was set up to be scalable; each module ran for two weeks with the option to run for 12 weeks total (six modules if needed). The 88 students were divided into pre-existing small groups from their pre-clinical years; each small group had one to two faculty leaders from several departments in the medical school: public health, pediatrics, family medicine and pharmacology. Chief residents and senior residents in pediatrics also helped faculty lead small groups and design some of the course content. They relied heavily on the small groups as a way to keep students engaged with learning and with others. While the majority of course content focused on public health principles, respiratory viruses, prevention and control of infectious diseases, and crisis management, there was also an emphasis on building community and connections within small groups and on wellness. Students were assigned wellness activities every week to complete and small groups engaged in activities such as going on virtual field trips together and creating pandemic playlists that student affairs loaded into Spotify that everyone could listen to! The online class became a way for many people at the medical school to stay engaged during a very unnerving and isolating time.  

Dr. Simeonsson concludes, “When I think back on my career as a medical school faculty member, my role and participation in the “pandemic crisis management” in spring 2022 will be one of the most memorable and rewarding things I have been a part of.”

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