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Masks & Misconceptions: A Look At Penn State’s First-Ever COVID-19 Class

It’s been more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic began, and this spring, a handful of Penn State students are actively studying COVID-19-related topics in the virtual classroom.

IST 497: Skills to Obstruct Pandemics is a special topics course taught by Dr. Frank Ritter within the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology.

The goal of the course is to help students protect themselves and their community from COVID-19 and related diseases.

“Some CDC guidelines are changing, but nearly all of it is not,” Ritter said. “The edge cases do change as we learn more. It is unfair to say that these changes indicate that you don’t have to do anything. That is a poor excuse. The science is detailed, and sometimes the details matter.

“Sometimes we learn we can be less cautious, and sometimes we learn that we should be more cautious,” he continued. “It is a novel virus, which means that we will have to learn about it. The virus also evolves. If we screw around in a public health sense, we give it more time and chances to evolve.”

While giving a talk in Ohio, Ritter met a retired Air Force colonel who was a fan of the tutor he developed for trauma nursing and suggested rolling it out to firefighters in the United States. When the pandemic hit, Ritter built a hand-washing tutor to help with research and programming, which led to tracking the pandemic through social distancing and mask-wearing.

Once the tutor was built, a book, titled “Skills To Obstruct the Pandemic: How to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19 and similar infections,” was written and published to reach more people. Then, the development and promotion of a Penn State COVID-19 course began.

Currently, there are six students enrolled in the one-credit class who meet virtually one hour per week, with plans to potentially meet outside in April or May. The class doesn’t have prerequisites, so freshmen through graduate students are taking the class from a variety of academic backgrounds, including IST, nursing, security and risk analysis, and electrical engineering.

“If you only look at your parents or friends who have died, then it is very dangerous. I know an increasing number of such people,” Ritter explained. “But if you only have empathy or understanding, once you know such people or are such people, it’s not very rational or very fair. It is not very civic-minded or very Christian.

“If you look at the numbers, they suggest that this could have blow up in our face, and taken out 1% of the population and clogged the hospitals, taking out everyone who needed critical care at that time, which might be another 1%,” he continued.

The students work through chapters of the book, which are sections of the tutor. Each week, the class talks through the chapters, discusses current affairs, and takes a quiz. Ritter is typically joined by Dr. Amanda Clase during instruction.

Ritter said he designed the course to teach non-medical professionals about COVID-19 and other pandemics and how to protect themselves and others. The depth of the content is somewhere between medical school and simply “how to wear a mask.” It delves into the “whys” and “hows” of COVID-19 and its transmission.

The course discusses misconceptions of COVID-19. Wearing a mask is not always enough to stop the virus, so students learn about what to do in circumstances, such as driving in a car with someone else for two hours. Rules don’t necessarily guarantee safety, but they do increase the chances of safety.

“There are very few absolutes, and the experts nearly all think of risk reduction and not completely risk removal,” Ritter said. “Not all good and bad behavior can be explained in a 10-word poster.”

Specific topics of discussion include the theory of infection, the logistics of herd immunity, the results that can come from distancing, and how mask and hand-washing can slow and potentially stop the spread.

The book was published before vaccines were readily available, but it does suggest getting one when you can. Ritter explained that there are risks to vaccinations that need to be acknowledged, but the risks are far smaller than not being vaccinated.

Most people are familiar with the concept of first-aid, which is how to help someone initially when they’re hurt. The book is described as “zeroth aid” because it can help someone before they’re even hurt.

“We will eventually see the people wearing masks as the ‘good-guy,’ considerate American thing to do,” Ritter said.

Editor’s Note: Professors Amanda Clase and Ed Glantz co-teach with Ritter and assisted his responses for this story.

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About the Author

Colleen Nersten

Colleen is a washed-up biology grad and former associate editor. Her legacy will live on through stories like “10 Questions With State College Sensation ‘Hot UPS Bae’”. If you’re a STEM girlie, this is your sign to take the leap of faith and learn to write. It’s pretty fun. Colleen misses the hate mail and can be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

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