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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

COVID In The Classroom: Morning Edition Visits An Idaho High School Biology Class

Courtesy Alison Ward

It's a challenge to wrap your brain around the very idea of learning about viruses in a high school biology class, while a current pandemic rages across the planet. But indeed, that's the task put before educators in the 2020-2021 school year.

'The world is this amazing classroom," said Boise High School AP Environmental Teacher Alison Ward. "And I do really strive for that. Hopefully, my students can sense that in what we do together."

Morning Edition host George Prentice visited (via Zoom) Mrs. Ward's classroom, where high school junior Marlee Zimmer joined the conversation to talk about what they're studying and how preparing the next generation with science and facts has never been more essential.

“These students are amazing in their resilience in this situation and they're really staying in the game. They are trying to absorb all this change.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News.  Good Morning. For the past year, we have talked so much about science and biology…more than just about any time in recent memory… and for good reason as a pandemic has rocked the planet. So, can you imagine what it's like to take a biology class in 2021, in the shadow of this biological crisis? We're going to go to class this morning, quite literally. Alison Ward is here. She teaches science at Boise High School, and that's where we find her this morning. Ali, could you introduce us to I think we've got a guest here.

ALISON WARD: Yes, this is my student, Marlee Zimmer and Marlee is a Junior here at Boise High School, and she's taking my Environmental Science class. I just thought she would have such an interesting perspective as she was in Biology last spring when things closed down. And we've been studying environmental science together. And it's just great to have her here.

PRENTICE: Marlee, first off, let's talk about this crazy hybrid learning environment. What has this school year been like for you?

MARLEE ZIMMER: So, first off, it's very weird. One day I wake up at 6 a.m. and I get ready to go to school. The next day, I sleep in almost until class starts. And then I open my computer and walk into my room meeting and then I just kind of sit there and see what my assignment is for the day. And then I do my assignment and I pretty much repeat that for every class. But when I'm in the classroom, the environment is very quiet, So Mrs. Ward tells a joke and…everyone just kind of sits there, but it's kind of quiet, so I don't really know what to do. So, I kind of just do a breathy laugh. Or for other classes like history, my teacher will ask a question. And even if students have an answer, they don't say anything because they're scared of being wrong. It almost feels like masks can divide us almost. It's great that we can come together and be with other people, but it makes us feel like we have a force field around ourselves… and it's harder to connect with people in the same way that we're used to.

PRENTICE: For our listeners perspective, I should note that Marlee and Ali have face masks on, appropriately so. And so that's probably what you may also be hearing… just a little bit of a muffled, but such it is for all of us in 2021. Ali, talk to me about teaching and learning about COVID in the classroom.

Credit Courtesy Alison Ward
Alison Ward (left) and Marlee Zimmer (right)

WARD: Well, my first memory from last spring was really trying to help my students understand why it would be necessary to possibly close schools. And I remember those graphs that we first started to look at where we were talking about “flattening the curve.” As a science teacher, we spend so much of our time and energy and passion really trying to help our students become literate….and looking at data sets and different kinds of data and graphs that tell a story. And so, there was just this amazing moment to help the students learn what almost was kind of became a catchphrase. Right? “Flatten the curve.” We literally were studying exponential growth and looking at these curves. And so, the whole notion of using scientific models to predict change that could help humanity was just in our various responses and the different kinds of decisions that need to be made…and local leaders all over the country who are in the position to make these decisions, based on science, and the need of the scientific community to also become a communication hub for people making decisions for their families, for their businesses, for their communities. It's quite the time to be a science educator, to be thinking about science and data literacy.

PRENTICE: Marlee, you know this. I'm certain your contemporaries know this. Our last best chance is science and knowledge.

WARD: I am personally very interested in science and I love it because there's always something new to discover. It really helps us fundamentally understand who we are as humans. And I feel like it's almost like history… where, if we understand where we came from our past, then we can make sure that we make better decisions in the future. So we don't A: make similar mistakes to what we've already made, or B: we just simply know how we act and what we will act like or exactly what a virus is and how to stop it or how to stay safe or keep our friends and family safe.

PRENTICE: Marlee, my guess is you can you tell me something about COVID-19 that I ought to know.

ZIMMER: Yes. I think something that just came out…I saw it this past weekend. Double masking is probably one of the best things we can do to stop this virus. I know that cloth masks are about 50 percent effective and surgical masks or medical masks are about like 55 percent effective. But if you put them together, they stop about 80 percent of all particles or are 90 percent effective, which is just an insane statistic. I found it from the CDC.

PRENTICE: And Marlee, are you wearing a double mask?

WARD: Yes, It's kind of hidden.

PRENTICE: My guess is that your generation gets this.

WARD: I think it also really depends on the person and how connected we are through social media. That's kind of how I figured it out. But then I looked further into it at the CDC. But I think the younger generations who are on social media and connected like this, can really communicate easier with each other.

PRENTICE: I'm so impressed that I am talking to a high schooler who is quoting the CDC.

WARD: These students are amazing in their resilience in this situation and they're really staying in the game. They are trying to absorb all this change and all the new ones that are going to make sense to them, even if we've never met them before. I just really appreciate them. It's fun to get to be with them right now in small groups and get to know them well and support them in that more personal way.

PRENTICE: Ali Ward, I'm not huge into social media, but I would be remiss if I did not make note that I saw on your Facebook page something that you wrote: “Learn as if your life depends on it.”

WARD: That's it. That's the goal of every day… to engage in what that day presents and to ask questions and try to dig deeper and try to confront bias when it rears its head, which it will. And the world is the most amazing classroom. And I do really strive for that. Hopefully my students can sense that in what we do together.

PRENTICE: Marlee, what do you want to do someday?

ZIMMER: Someday I would love to go into epidemiology. Honestly, yeah, and I've always been really interested in Prions, which are proteins that cause mad cow disease and stuff, but just no one knows what happens. So that really got me interested in epidemiology, which also got me interested in general public health, and helping people… and possibly being an anesthesiologist or an emergency room doctor… some place where I can help people and discover more science and not just do the same thing every day.

PRENTICE: Ali, I know that you'll miss her when she's gone, but as far as I'm concerned, she can't get to college soon enough.

WARD: The world is ready for more and more of these young people to move into positions where they can shape it, and help us understand that.

PRENTICE: What a unique moment when science and knowledge has never been more important to our survival.

WARD: Absolutely. And more and more front and center in our conversations with people of all walks of life: acquaintances, family, close friend, mentors and mentees.

PRENTICE: Fully masked, she is Alison Ward at Boise High School. And along with her, Marlee Zimmer, double-masked. Congratulations for getting through almost, what, two thirds of a school year. And if all goes as planned, high school is back in class five days a week, after spring semester. And that's something to look forward to as well. Thank you so very much. Best of luck to you. And thanks for giving us some time this morning.

WARD: Absolutely, George. Take care. Thank you.

ZIMMER: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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