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I am not a professor, but I work at a Community College. I work with students directly (basically a tutor) and someone asked me a question that I didn't know how to respond: Is it appropriate for professors to use COVID as a topic in their online discussion boards?

Obviously, the whole COVID situation can provide professors an ample supply of material directly related to the content of the course. If you study math, then you can look at different data and statistics about it. If you study economics, then you can look at the economic impact and response. If you study sociology, you can look at it through a sociological lens. Basically, every subject has the potential to use COVID in their class. At my community college, all of the online professors require weekly discussion board posts, as a way to keep the students talking and engaged with each other. It appears that most professors are making their discussion board posts COVID related. But issues can arise when a student has high anxiety or stress about their quarantine. Basically, the student I was working with said something along the lines of "I have been in quarantine for 5 months already, COVID is all over the news and social media, I read about it and listen to it 24/7. I'm tired of it. I don't want it waved in my face from all of my professors trying to get me to discuss it even more. I'm having a tough time as it is, why are they making me re-live it?"

Should professors use COVID as a real world example of their material? Or should they be more sensitive to possible student issues of quarantine?

I wasn't sure what to tag...I tagged health-issues more for mental health issues. I couldn't find a tag for discussion boards or online forums for classes.

EDIT: I am based in the U.S. if that helps shape any thoughts/answers. And now after reading the accepted answer, it makes me worry about this particular student I have. She had to write a discussion board post and the professor said "write about 3 examples of xyz as it relates to the COVID pandemic. Keep this dscussion post in mind later this week when I give you your first paper assignment." So now I am afraid she will have to write about something COVID related for a 5 page paper. Would it be acceptable for her to ask for a different assignment, since she has high anxiety about anything COVID related? (she is very high risk since she is older and has had previous lung surgery. She literally has not left her house since March, so I know the topic compounds her mental health difficulties).

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    Yes, I would pass along this feedback that you're getting that students aren't engaging well with this material. – Azor Ahai -him- Aug 26 '20 at 17:45
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I think I would avoid using COVID-19 as an example except in situations that are most directly relevant (those involving viral biology or epidemiology, for example), for exactly the reason your student raised.

At the same time, I wouldn't say it is inappropriate, just that it is quite a saturated topic for many people right now. It's also definitely appropriate to open forums for students to converse about managing aspects of the pandemic, especially in their experience as students, on topics like social isolation, remote learning, etc.

I would also encourage students to relate topics to COVID by their choice when there are most open-ended assignments, while also allowing them to use different cases.

Usually there is some benefit for relating content to current events to make the content more salient, but I do think this is a time where there is a bit of overload. Ordinarily, you would do this to make a bridge, where students are now thinking about the material in a relevant-to-them way. With COVID, there is enough going on that instead they might be distracted by other thoughts about COVID (including anxieties about themselves or others being infected, loved ones who are currently sick or have died, general uncertainty and impacts of measures to reduce spread, etc), unrelated to the course material, so you lose the benefits.

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    There is also the risk of encountering a student who has lost a loved one to covid-19. – Bob Brown Aug 26 '20 at 17:49
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    @BobBrown Agreed (and added explicitly to emphasize), though one could argue that's true for many other topics including health topics like cancer. I think the difference here is that it's just so hard to escape in the current news cycle, especially for those who as you point out have been most directly affected. – Bryan Krause Aug 26 '20 at 17:56
  • I think this might vary depending on country. Not every country dropped the public health ball as badly as America has. – nick012000 Aug 27 '20 at 1:57
  • @nick012000 Perhaps. OP seems to be in the US, as am I. Though I will definitely not argue the US has done anything besides drop the ball, several countries elsewhere, particularly Europe, have still observed a similar or higher total per-capita death rate, so Bob Brown's comment still applies. Thankfully things are mostly more in control in those places now, though. – Bryan Krause Aug 27 '20 at 2:20
  • Yes, thank you for the answer! After reflecting a bit throughout the day I pretty much feel the same way as this answer. Professors shouldn't explicitly ask for students to discuss, but they should create a welcoming environment and provide a place for students to discuss it on their own without being forced to. – ruferd Aug 27 '20 at 3:06
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That COVID can become boring is interesting feedback. I and other people I know who teach use COVID examples to make the material more approachable for students by showing how that material is relevant for their daily life. I can see how this can be over-used. This feedback could help to find the right balance.

However, I don't think we should avoid discussing COVID altogether. It is an important phenomenon that needs to be discussed and taught in universities.

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Use the COVID topic only if it's relevant to the course. At the community college, courses are at an introductory level with only a few that are more advanced.

It would depend on the instructor's comfort level and classroom dynamics. There are many historical examples that I use in class without mentioning COVID as an example. As an instructor, I refrain from using it as an example of the course as it triggers my anxiety. Nonetheless, if a student showed an interest in COVID research, I am ready to provide them with resources and research within their fields of interest to assist them to seek trustworthy information and develop their research.

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