It’s Saturday morning and about a dozen young children are making hand sanitizer for their families, mixing together isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera. Via a Zoom screen, several John Hopkins University medics look on, reciting the right proportions and answering questions—such as why the alcohol concentration should be 90 percent and how sanitizer kills the SARS-CoV- 2 virus. When the children are done mixing the ingredients, they excitedly spray the disinfectant on their parents’ hands. “You guys did a terrific job,” Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center tells them. “Now you can help keep your families safe.”
These science projects, along with several other modules that include learning the novel coronavirus biology and the benefits of masks, are a new educational program launched by the John Hopkins University’s team of physicians and educators. Johns Hopkins HEAT (Health Education And Training) Corps evolved from Galiatsatos’s prior public outreach venue. As a pulmonologist, he had previously run a lung health ambassador program that taught youngsters about the dangers of smoking tobacco and e-cigarettes. When the pandemic hit and the need for educating the public about the coronavirus safety became obvious, the team regrouped. “We had a foundation already so we just flipped it to COVID,” Galiatsatos says.
The sessions, which launched in early summer as a pilot, became a mandatory part of the curriculum for Baltimore City public high schools. One private and two county schools added the sessions to their afterschool programs. An all-girls school even invited the team for their virtual STEM day. Nonprofits that work with undeserved communities included the lessons into their outreach. Soon, 26 states adopted the curriculum. So did several countries—Guatemala, Tanzania, Cyprus, Panama and Sudan. Sudan has already started the sessions and others hope to follow soon.
Taught remotely, the lessons are tailored to the participants’ age with more hands-on activities for the younger kids and more biology and science for the older ones. “We work at their pace,” Galiatsatos says.
Typically, trained undergraduate and medical students teach the sessions, along with one faculty member who answers the more medically complex or politically controversial questions. “Kids ask good questions,” Galiatsatos says. Some wanted to know how long they would have to stay in the intensive care units if they got COVID or the best way to treat the disease. Others inquired about conspiracy theories. After a recent session that delved into the physics of facemasks one student pondered, “why doesn’t the President wear a mask, if the science clearly supports it?”
Designing a trustful and engaging curriculum was very important, says Annette Anderson, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Education who helped with the community outreach. “With so much conflicting information at the federal, state and local levels, it is important to cut through the noise,” she says. It was also essential to reach the children and families to maintain the public’s confidence in doctors and healthcare, she adds. “Young people don’t know who to trust, parents often don’t know who to trust—and it is very important to have trust in our public health institutions.” Understanding the real picture and ways to stay safe empowers both the children and the adults.
As children ponder what happens to the virus when everyone washes their hands, wears masks and maintains social distance, they realize that they can control the disease spread themselves. “The moment when students grasp the biology of the virus and understand how to stop it is priceless,” says Galiatsatos who notes the empowerment on the kids’ faces and in their eyes. “They know they can control it. They want to control it. We tell them they should tell adults how to control it. This transformation is absolutely amazing to watch. It is my favorite moment.”