Combating COVID-19 Virtually: A Student Organization Perspective on Becoming Involved in the COVID-19 Response

by Paige Harton and Katelin Reishus

As the COVID-19 epidemic has continued to evolve, the Emory Student Outbreak and Response Team (SORT) at the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH) has coordinated with our members and with local, state, and federal agencies to evaluate how SORT can be of service during this crisis. In addition to supporting local public health institutions, SORT’s mission is to provide relevant training and educational experiences to its 50 members in order to better prepare future public health leaders. The current global public health emergency with COVID-19 is an unprecedented opportunity to utilize our members’ diverse expertise in order to provide a skilled volunteer force consisting of future public health professionals while also creating a unique position for our students to engage in a real-world public health emergency.

SORT was first approached about volunteer opportunities about a month after the virus began to take hold in the eastern hemisphere. Anticipating an increase in these requests, we decided to survey our members to determine our volunteer capacity. We sought to determine who was willing to help, who had the proper credentialing (such as being badged at the CDC) to assist, how long and how frequently our members would be available, and what types of organizations students would be interested in assisting. After gathering this information, we disseminated these metrics to our partner organizations who then communicated their opportunities and expectations for SORT student volunteers. To date, our members are currently involved in:

  • Working with the Georgia Department of Public Health virtually on daily epidemiology related tasks
  • Serving as active members of the Fulton County Medical Reserve Corps
  • Drafting guidance documents related to social distancing, vulnerable populations, and other relevant subjects for smaller clinics for a non-profit organization
  • Collaborating with our school of medicine on a forecasting project related to personal protective equipment
  • Serving as members of the Rollins School of Public Health Needs Assessment Team

We have also assisted within our school. At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Rollins School of Public Health created a committee of faculty, staff and students to rapidly develop dynamic school-wide guidance on COVID-19. We were invited to join this committee as student representatives, and in our capacity to assist, we worked with the Office of Admissions and Student Services to administer a survey and focus group of other Rollins School of Public Health student leaders to ascertain the most immediate concerns of students for COVID-related preparations. Our data collected from other students helped shape the overall school guidance. Being a part of this team has been a unique learning experience for us as student leaders and provided us the chance to meaningfully support and engage in preparedness-related decision-making of our school. 

In an effort to encourage other student organizations to participate in a similar capacity, we suggest 5 tips to keep in mind when offering volunteers to partner institutions for COVID-19 response efforts.

5 Tips for Student Organizations during COVID-19 Response Efforts


1. Take advantage of this opportunity to engage your members in real world public health activities by proactively reaching out to local partners and offering assistance of your member volunteers. Consider leveraging any faculty advisors your student organization may have if you don’t initially get a response; their engagement can help busy community partners appreciate your skillsets and capacity. There are institutions that will be able to offer remote work for student volunteers.

2. Determine your student organization’s volunteer capacity by sending out a survey to your members to collect data on their availability and the types of organizations (eg, local public health departments, local non-profits, state agencies) they would most like to volunteer with.

3. Strive to establish a single point of contact at each partnering organization so you don’t get overburdened with requests from the same community partner organization.

4. Establish expectations for both your partnering institutions and for your student volunteers. This includes time commitments, duration of the proposed volunteer activities, and roles for volunteers. If specific volunteer needs are not clear at the outset of the arrangement, ensure that the opportunities are safe and appropriate for volunteers and are within the realm of activities you want your students participating in.

5. Remember that you are students first and foremost. The health and mental wellbeing of you and your members is paramount, and while opportunities that arise during an event like a pandemic are exciting, it is vital to know what activities are safe and doable for students to engage in.


If your student group is interested in learning more, visit SORT at Emory Rollins School of Public Health.

Paige Harton

Paige Harton is an MPH candidate in epidemiology at Emory Rollins School of Public Health and co-president of SORT. She graduated from Kansas State University with a BS degree in psychology. She joined SORT to learn from renowned public health professionals and expand her knowledge and training related to emergency preparedness as much as possible.






Katelin Reishus

Katelin Reishus is an MPH candidate in global epidemiology at Emory Rollins School of Public Health and co-president of SORT. She earned a BS in biochemistry and a BA in Spanish from Tulane University. She joined SORT because it and its dedicated members exemplify a spirit of volunteerism and offers applicable skill set training and networking opportunities with professionals in the field of outbreak response and emergency management. She is excited not only to participate but also to help plan opportunities for SORT members similarly interested in these topics.