Our Rights at Risk in a Public Health Crisis
Drs. Anthony Fauci and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Teaching students about the right to health in a global pandemic

At its heart, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ educational program Speak Truth to Power (STTP) celebrates and supports educators. As teachers around the world are being asked to navigate distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic, STTP is helping them adjust by providing new lessons, webinars, and community events geared toward online instruction. 

Our new lesson plan, “Our Rights at Risk in a Public Health Crisis,” highlights two modern human rights defenders who are speaking truth to power—Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization—and uses interactive activities to explore the human rights at risk and the role of government in a public health crisis. 

When approaching these lessons, educators must be mindful of the drastic toll the coronavirus pandemic may be taking on students’ mental health and their social and emotional well-being. STTP recommends that educators consider the level of personal support students might need in tandem with a lesson and be prepared with resources such as contact information for counselors and psychologists at their schools (if applicable) as well as helplines and support organizations. In turn, educators should practice self-care to manage their own stress and avoid burnout.

Students and educators alike may have experienced some level of trauma and/or loss due to COVID-19, and it is very natural for both groups to feel stress during and outside the virtual school day. Educators should provide time for themselves and their students to process their emotions in a healthy and reflective way. Before beginning the main activities of the lesson, for example, they could start with an open discussion or a mindfulness exercise. “During our daily check-ins, I’m honest with my students about my head space,” says STTP educator Michelle Haddix, who teaches AP U.S. History at Herron High School in Indianapolis. “I trust them with that truth [and] in return, I find that my kids are more willing to forgo their pain, trauma, and insecurity.” STTP educator Pamela Schmidt, who teaches English Special Education at Freeport High School in New York, recommends starting with guided meditations and peaceful music, which she says helps students “develop a sense of calm and peace amid the unpredictable outcomes surrounding daily life.” 

While we know we cannot replace the interpersonal interactions and pedagogical relationships of educators and students in a traditional classroom, the STTP team intentionally designed “Our Rights at Risk in a Public Health Crisis,” and the rest of our new material, to be effective in an online learning setting. For example: 

  • The Anticipatory Activity permits independent or remote research, and the final comparison and contrast exercise can be completed through communal blog posts. 
  • Instead of using a flip chart, an educator could use an editable PowerPoint presentation in Activity 1. The class could complete this discussion as a group on Zoom, or the educator could divide students into groups via Zoom Rooms and then gather them together for a discussion at the end.
  • For Activity 2, students may choose a video or resource to view via the already accessible links within the PowerPoint. If the educator can’t use Zoom for oral reports, students could record themselves on a phone and submit an audio or video file. 
  • In Activity 3, students can create virtual reports or write a substantial research paper using interactive and up-to-date resources and data from the World Health Organization. 
  • As the Culminating Activity draws on the inquiries from Activity 1, educators may facilitate this activity and the creation of the Rights Action Plan in groups or individually. They can encourage students to use art or other media to express their ideas creatively rather than an oral presentation. 
  • Finally, a cornerstone of STTP is the activism and action-oriented “Become a Defender” section in which we encourage students to organize virtual meetings to collaborate and brainstorm (including, but not limited to, organizing on social media). STTP educator Estella Owoimaha-Church, who teaches English and theater at Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles, also encourages educators to use platforms like Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram to set up a live lesson. “To increase engagement, consider using props or backdrops,” she says. To ease the workload, Owoimaha-Church also recommends reaching out to a colleague and co-teaching a livestreamed session. Michelle Haddix says creating an Instagram page “was the best decision I ever made.” “Through this platform, my kids get to see me and hear my voice,” she says. “I have the opportunity to deliver information to them in real time and warn them about false information. Most importantly, this platform gives us time to laugh.” 

In addition to “Our Rights at Risk in a Public Health Crisis,” which directly comments upon the coronavirus pandemic, all of STTP’s other lesson plans about human rights defenders are available online for public use. “Selecting texts of visceral narratives such as STTP…can provide intertextual connections (particularly text to world and text to self) to students’ own lives and current experiences while learning about the feelings, actions, and thoughts of others,” says Pamela Schmidt. Many of these defenders’ stories connect, directly or indirectly, to the human rights issues that are arising in the COVID-19 context, such as the rights to health, an adequate standard of living, social security, and education. 

STTP also offers virtual field trips, during which RFK Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy sits down with human rights defenders including Kailash Satyarthi, Van Jones, Jazz Jennings, Darrick Hamilton, and Ibtihaj Muhammad. Through STTP’s music and video contests, young people can find a creative outlet through which to process the current pandemic. Estella Owoimaha-Church integrates art into distance learning through STTP, films, podcasts, music, literature, and more. She says that “art has an incredible way of…providing social-emotional outlets for young people [and] has the power to support learners’ academic growth in an immeasurably large way.” 

The STTP team and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights recognize that online education presents issues of equity and access as it pertains to the right to education. We empathize with all educators, districts, and learners who may not be able to access these virtual resources. As you use our resources and plan to take mindful action through “Become a Defender,” we encourage you and your students to think about how they may serve and help these populations. 

Our defenders’ stories are powerful not only because of their actions, but also because of the challenging circumstances under which they lived, where their rights were at risk or abused. Many people’s rights are currently at risk, but we thank and honor educators for defending the human right to education today and every day.