Summer of Service Learning

by Eric Coles, DrPH

This summer public health students are struggling to find positions that fulfill field-based learning requirements for their degree programs, as many host organizations have cancelled their summer practicum and internship programs due to COVID-19. At the same time, local public health departments are in desperate need of more resources for contact tracing and other efforts to combat COVID-19.

Academic institutions can help both these groups by supporting students to work and volunteer with local public health departments. With institutional support, students can have a positive impact on local public health while fulfilling their degree requirements through a summer of service learning.

Schools can do three things to support students who volunteer for COVID-19. First, they can allow students to use COVID-19 positions as practicums or for course credit through independent studies. The Council on Education for Public Health, the accreditation body of public health degrees, has recommended “maximum flexibility” for practicum positions this year. Students will need flexibility around locations, supervisors, deliverables, and hours. Any changes to requirements must then be clearly communicated to students so that they know COVID-19 volunteering is an acceptable option. Students will be more likely to volunteer if it can advance their studies.

Second, fostering connections with local public health departments can create new opportunities for students. As they manage the pandemic response and its myriad demands, the flood of questions, information, and requests from the community and implementation partners make it difficult for local public health departments to organize and manage interns this summer. Health departments, thus, need help in order to utilize students to support their work. One solution is to establish academic health departments, which are formalized partnerships between a public health department, at a city, county, or state level, and academic institutions. AHDs can be found sparingly around the country but are very useful in facilitating connections between students and health departments. Successful AHDs allow many more students to be placed and undertake meaningful public health work.

I have spent the last six weeks volunteering with the Massachusetts Academic Health Department (AHD) Consortium in its COVID-19 response. The AHD recently created the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps to support local public health departments across Massachusetts. The project utilizes a team concept where a single lead volunteer is the point of contact with a local board of health and organizes a team of volunteers to support their identified needs. It has shown early signs of success. In the last six weeks, several hundred volunteers have been placed through the partnership, many of whom are using the opportunity for their practicums. This arrangement benefits schools through placing practicum seekers and meeting certification requirements while supporting local public health departments across Massachusetts to address COVID-19.  

Finally, finding ways to alleviate financial strain on students will allow for more depth and diversity in the volunteer pool. More privileged students with more secure financial backgrounds have an easier decision to make about volunteering. While budgets will be tight at many schools, students are also feeling the burden, even more so for those with less privileged backgrounds. This financial consideration is at the heart of the equity issue around student volunteers. 

Around the country, there are nearly 40,000 students enrolled in schools and programs of public health. Many of  these students will need practicum positions this summer.  A “summer of service learning” is the perfect opportunity to support local public health departments and help to combat this pandemic. __________________________________________________________________________

Eric Coles, DrPH

Eric Coles is a Doctor of Public Health graduating student at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Co-Director of Volunteer Operations at the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps since March.