Studying public health during a pandemic

Sierra Castedo de Martell and Brianna
Left: Sierra Castedo de Martell's home-classroom setup with baby Barton. Right: Brianna "Bri" Lewis' home-classroom set up.
Karla Sofia Mendez and Pablo U. Olvera
Left: Pablo U. Olvera's home-classroom set up. Right: Karla Sofia Mendez's home-classroom set up

See how our summer semester students are learning to tackle the public health problems of today and tomorrow from their home classrooms. This the first of a two-part series. We’ll be checking in with another group of students in the next few weeks

Sierra Castedo de Martell

PhD, Behavioral Sciences Student, Austin

Top challenge of class-from home

Attending live class sessions while juggling a baby. My husband is also working remotely, and sometimes has to take meetings while I’m in class. Most of the time it’s fine, but not when the baby gets cranky! 

Best benefit of class-from home

Aside from being able to keep myself and my family safer from COVID-19, it’s definitely been getting to spend so much more time with baby Barton! 

How has COVID-19 has impacted the way you think about public health work?

I have felt strongly about this for many years, and this crisis has pushed it to the forefront: public health is essential, but it must truly be public. Public health must be adequately funded, both in terms of public health responses to crises like these, but also health services. An unemployment crisis should not also cause a crisis in people’s insurance coverage and access to affordable healthcare. Countries with universal health coverage are facing many of the same challenges we are during this crisis but worrying about health coverage isn’t one of them.

Brianna “Bri” Lewis

DrPH, Health Promotion & Behavioral Sciences Doctoral Program, Houston

Top challenge of class-from home

A major challenge for me was the unexpected switch to online classes during the coronavirus outbreak. The teaching staff (faculty and TAs) had to make quick adjustments to the delivery of educational materials, lectures, exams, and homework. This change, amidst a pandemic, proved to be challenging for both the student and the professors. Consequently, this has resulted in less student-teacher engagement, less classroom/student participation, and less information provided by the professor. I, personally, avoid online classes due to my learning style so I’ve found myself struggling to understand and retain information during this time. This has also taken a major toll on my mental health due to the fact that the structure of courses changed in a major way, but the delivery expectation of assignments, papers, etc. did not. Fortunately, I’ve been able to adjust but it was not easy at first.

Best benefit of class-from home

The major benefit of class from home has been the ability to struggle with coursework, but in a safe space. However, I know that there are many students nationwide who do not have that luxury. 

How COVID-19 has impacted the way you think about public health work?

In most situations, whether it be a pandemic, food insecurity, housing, safety, healthcare, etc., Black and brown and low-income communities are always those who are most affected. COVID-19 has exposed for me, the process by which public health plays a major role in identifying structural causes such as systemic decision-making that is adverse to people of color in education, banking, community planning, food security, healthcare, and policy. COVID-19 and the delivery of healthcare has made this very vivid for me

Karla Sofia Mendez

PhD, Environmental Sciences – Disease Prevention Track

Top challenge of class-from home

I usually write a weekly planner that lists my school goals and tasks, as well as a daily planner to achieve these goals. Before the COVID-19 pandemic’s stay-at-home orders, I used to have my days and time organized. I would go to work in the morning, walk from work to school in the afternoon, walk back to work after my classes, then finally do homework and study after work for the rest of the day. However, with the stay-at-home orders, my organization completely changed. Since all my spring classes were through ITV (interactive television), I truly felt that I was prepared for this change; I felt that learning and having class online instead of connecting through ITV at school would feel the same. However, this was not the case. I faced, and I’m still facing, challenges such as adapting to this new Webex (videoconferencing) technology, distractions and time management, technical issues, and staying motivated. It was hard to see my home as a space of work. This change was definitely challenging, but I am adapting slowly.

Best benefit of class-from home

Despite the challenges one faced during COVID-19 pandemic’s stay-at-home orders, the school’s faculty was always present. I would still be in touch with my professors about any issues – technical or personal – and they would all be so flexible about the situation. In addition, my professors were clear about the course expectations and whether there were any changes to requirements given this on-line transition. This definitely helped me with my time management, and I was able to maintain a planner and schedule what was needed for my classes week after week. Finally, and most importantly, I was able to talk to my advisor, who was always available for my concerns, and to discuss my questions regarding my academic future. I was not certain how the coming fall semester online classes would change my future academic goals. However, my advisor was able to answer all of my questions and find a solution, which has helped me in staying motivated.

How has COVID-19 impacted the way you think about public health work?

I learned about preparedness and public health response to disease outbreaks from books, but I never thought I would experience the complicated effort and work it takes to achieve this any time soon. From this COVID-19 pandemic, I realized that the public health system is underfunded, and we will not be able to serve the public well when we only pay attention to public health during an unfortunate event.

Pablo U. Olvera

MPH, Epidemiology, Brownsville 

Top challenge of class-from home

The top challenge is most definitely limited communication. Without a specific time set for class meetings, we are left to hope that our schedules coincide with that of our classmates and instructors as well as their teaching assistants. A simple question that could be clarified in a classroom now may take a few hours or sometimes days to be answered. It is also more difficult to exchange words of support with a friend or family member without the touch of a hug or an encouraging pat on the back.

Best benefit of class-from home

Personally, one thing I can say I love about the current situation is the fact that I can do everything from the comfort of my home—sometimes from my own bed (guilty!). More importantly, I can have more time to focus on my daily tasks when I don’t have to worry about being in all these places (classroom/lab/workroom/library) at a certain time—I can do it all in one place. This not only makes me feel more productive, but it also makes it easier for me to visualize how all the important factors in my life are connected – my personal relationships, my job, my classes, and my career, to name a few.

How has COVID-19 has impacted the way you think about public health work?

The drastic changes that resulted from this pandemic have helped me realize that public health is much more than a field; it is a highly adaptive system of people in a wide range of positions (from first responders to testing center staff and contact tracers) constantly working together to ensure the safety of all. I am happier than ever to be pursuing a career in public health.

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