Michael Becker, Science Teacher, KIPP NYC College Prep High School

Michael Becker knows a lot about the COVID-19 vaccine. He teaches 12th graders the Psychology and Environmental Science courses, which include a newly developed five-part curriculum about the vaccine. He has previously taught Chemistry and Genetics. He is as close as we have on staff to a resident expert. He was even featured on NBC news! Along with his deep academic background in the sciences, he had personal knowledge of the vaccine well before the vast majority of the country. 

In the fall, Michael was scanning his Instagram for news and updates when he came across a post about joining the Pfizer vaccine trial. He jumped at the opportunity to participate in scientific health history. “I could play a small role in seeing if these vaccines work. We talk about the scientific method and what that’s like, but to actually live it was something I’d never done before”, said Mr. Becker. 

In early 2021, Michael learned that he received the placebo during the trial, dampening his enthusiasm. However, he has since received the real vaccine and he is delivering to his students the Coronavirus Vaccine Learning Cycle. This brand-new curriculum includes information about the virus, herd immunity, how vaccines work, various manufacturers, and how this scientific achievement is clouded by a history of social injustice in health care. Michael explained what classroom discussions look like:

“We talk about how communities of color and low-income communities have been hit the hardest. We’ll get into why certain communities get access to poorer health care. Why there are more front-line jobs due to systemic racism in our society. We’ll get into the numbers around demographics and how people of color are getting vaccinated at much lower rates.”

Students will start with analyzing data trends, looking at the neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest and using math to predict levels of herd immunity. The course will conclude with students’ creating a TikTok advertisement for or against the vaccine. 

The curriculum has resonated with students due to their lived experiences, and their understanding of the history of racial bias in medicine. The majority of students in Mr. Becker’s classes come from communities that have been acutely affected by the virus. Michael shares how his students have been engaging with the subject: 

“We know about systemic racism in health care. There’s racism in past medical trials. Students have way more experience about this than other topics we teach: personal experiences, family members who have had it [COVID]. We discuss how your community has fared. It’s interesting that responses vary by neighborhood. ‘I lost my sense of taste but I never tested positive.’ ‘My great grandmother died.’ They know lots of people who have been sick or they’ve been personally sick. There’s a lot of fear about the vaccine. I want kids to find factual information so we can have a discussion about that.”

While students have been enjoying the vaccine curriculum and its relevance to their lives, at the end of the day what they want – what all of us want – is to see our friends and family again without the specter of risk or the imposition of social distancing. Michael hopes that through his lessons students and their families will feel empowered to receive the vaccine, accelerating the return to a more dynamic way of life for all.