Public Health Students and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
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When COVID-19 gained pandemic status in the spring, students in health-related fields across the country saw topics from  their courses and training become a reality.

For Heather Schubert and Jennie Kriznik, recent graduates of the master of professional studies in homeland security public health preparedness option offered online through Penn State World Campus, the pandemic offered a unique opportunity to apply their education to a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

During their final semester, Schubert and Kriznik each enrolled in an independent studies course that allowed them to pursue projects in topics unrelated to their required courses.

“Since I’m in the public health field, I decided to address the COVID-19 pandemic since something like this may never happen again in my lifetime,” said Schubert, who graduated in August. “I felt like I needed to be a part of some kind of a response and information giving.”

For her project, Schubert developed a curriculum for high schoolers on the public health preparedness field and how it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The curriculum focuses on what people can do in response to the pandemic and how to get accurate information to the public,” said Schubert. “I've seen a lot of misinformation, so it’s important to direct people to good information and teach them how to then interpret that information.” 

Schubert divided the curriculum into four sections that cover the basics of public health preparedness (PHP), such as the major organizations and the role of PHP in disasters and emergencies; response through personal protection equipment, or PPE, and hospital vulnerabilities; response through viral and antibody testing; and mitigation through contact tracing.

In partnership with the Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Schubert also worked on developing broader curriculum that teaches biology, epidemiology and public health in high schools. She is exploring ways she can distribute her own curriculum to schools.

Schubert said she hopes the curriculum helps increase public understanding and interest in the public health preparedness field beyond its importance in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Public health preparedness is a really broad topic so it can be a bit confusing,” said Schubert. “Increasing the public’s understanding not only connects people to resources that they might not have known were there, but it could also open up a career path for someone who’s interested in the field.”

For students interested in pursuing higher education in the public health field, the Penn State World Campus public health preparedness option teaches students to be leaders in response to natural and man-made disasters with a focus on the medical and public health sectors. Course work explores social and ethical issues in homeland security, preparedness for disaster and terrorist emergencies, critical infrastructure protection of health care systems, and more.

The program was the country’s first online homeland security curricula developed through a partnership with a medical school. The courses are taught by faculty at Penn State College of Medicine's Department of Public Health Sciences.

“I always enjoy challenging students to step beyond the standard curriculum and pursue a dynamic topic of their choosing,” said Dr. Gene Lengerich, professor of public health sciences and Schubert and Kriznik’s adviser. “We need people with specific expertise and training in public health preparedness to lead us through this pandemic.”

Graduates of the 33-credit program pursue careers in public health, education, health care, emergency management and the military.

For Jennie Kriznik, a child life specialist at Penn State Children’s Hospital, the pandemic changed her job responsibilities, and the way she interacted with and cared for pediatric patients and their families. This experience prompted her to incorporate the pandemic and her passion for pediatrics into her individual studies course.

Using data collected in countries that faced the pandemic before the U.S., Kriznik created a comprehensive review of medical literature that examined the epidemiology of COVID-19 in children over time. Kriznik reviewed incidence rates of the virus in children, clinical presentation, and virus reproduction rates to determine how contagious the virus was among children. 

“It was really hard to get a good picture of what was going on in the United States, especially whenever it pertained to children,” said Kriznik, who also graduated in August. “When you're working in the middle of a pandemic, information is rapidly changing so it can be hard to get that information out there before it’s no longer accurate or relevant.” 

Along with the knowledge she gained from her project, Kriznik said she’s confident that the skills she learned through her online master’s degree will help her further her career in pediatrics.

“One of the main reasons I chose the public health preparedness program was because I wanted to get more involved and use the skills that I’ve gained as a child life specialist to provide pediatric services at a disaster response level,” said Kriznik.

Kriznik also said that as a student and professional in the public health field, having the support of her professors and peers while following news on the pandemic made the experience easier to handle and understand.

“Many of my professors worked as public health officials, and some  fellow students worked as first responders, health care professionals, or in some level of government working in public health,” said Kriznik, who continued to work full-time while at Penn State World Campus. “Having them as resources has been really great and we've all learned so much from each other.

“It’s helpful to know that we're all in this together, not just as students, but as public health professionals.”

Visit the Homeland Security - Public Health Preparedness website for more information on the program.