Teaching the Economics of COVID-19 in Autumn 2020

Sara Gundersen, Associate Professor of Economics, Valparaiso University
Published December 2020

Summary

This case study outlines the special topics course, The Economics of COVID-19, I taught in Fall 2020. Course topics included macroeconomic conditions and policies, long-term effects of the pandemic, and microeconomic case studies. In this case study I will describe the course and also share tips on how to plan a course around a continuously evolving topic.

Background

I taught the Economics of COVID-19 at Valparaiso University in the fall of 2020 in a condensed 7 week semester. The pandemic was new when I planned the course in April and so I had to consider uncertainty and work without a textbook. I decided the only way the course would work would be to make it highly interactive. I purposely asked questions that I did not know the answers to before class and graded participation highly. I also made the course project based so that I did not have to create tests on material that may change.

The course had 19 students and was cross-listed at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Graduate students had more involved projects that required more sources and writing. All students were required to take microeconomics and macroeconomics prerequisites. The course was taught in person, but students used Zoom to call in from day 1, as there were always students in quarantine or isolation. The course moved entirely online in late November.

Structure

"From my perspective, the fact that there were no exams gave me a lot of breathing room when new information came out."

The course had three major units: macroeconomics, long-term effects, and microeconomics, each with its own project. In the macroeconomics unit, students explored US data, including real GDP, unemployment, and inflation, connecting it to the aggregate demand and aggregate supply model. Students were asked to predict whether the US was still in a recession using the National Bureau of Economic Research Business Cycle Dating Committee information and the FRED (Federal Reserve of St. Louis) website. The students each presented a new tool of the US Federal Reserve, and the class critiqued the CARES act, ultimately coming up with an ideal stimulus bill themselves. Although this portion of the course was focused on the US, students also did research on another country of their choosing. If a similar course was taught in another country, I would imagine it would be simple to refocus this material on data and policy measures in that country or region. The corresponding project invited students to compare this recession to the 2007-2009 recession.

The long-term effects unit centered around COVID 19’s possible effects on the gender wage gap and US racial inequalities. The gender wage gap information was supplemented with information from a guest speaker, Dr. Amanda Zelechoski. She spoke about a large survey she conducted on the impact of COVID-19 on families and her role starting Pandemic Parenting, a resource for parents. The racial inequalities section involved use of the Opportunity Atlas website, along with the University of Richmond’s redlining maps and the updated Opportunity Insights information. Students discussed the role racial inequality had in health outcomes, and predicted how the pandemic could change future inequality. Finally, the class discussed other long-run changes, such as changes in thriftiness, people’s bandwidth, and changes in food and housing. For this unit’s project, students proposed a policy to address any long-run change they were interested in.

Finally, the class ended with a microeconomics unit structured around winners and losers. I invited two guest speakers to discuss their experiences doing well through the pandemic—the CEO of Market Wagon, an online farmer’s market delivery service, and a sales manager at a Chevrolet/Buick/GMC dealership in Southern Indiana. Both shared information on how and why their companies were doing so well. I chose to cover small businesses, the arts, and a case study on fashion to provide students with information on struggling industries, but this is obviously flexible and can change based on instructor’s interests. I also invited a local restaurant owner to discuss some of the struggles he was going through. The final project of the course involved an interview and industry analysis.

Participation was graded at 25% total, with 15% coming from in class work and 10% from reading responses on Perusall. To involve students at home, I used breakout rooms on Zoom, and required everyone to turn in their answers to worksheets each day. Each of the three projects was worth 25%. Again, there were no exams or quizzes.

Successes

Students responded positively to the course, citing an appreciation for the interactive nature and focus on current events. Several students specifically mentioned they enjoyed the readings and discussions. From my perspective, the fact that there were no exams gave me a lot of breathing room when new information came out. For example, real GDP numbers came out in October showing the US grew at 33.1% in the third quarter of 2020. Clearly the class needed to discuss this, and I felt comfortable fitting in a discussion. I was also able to cover more difficult material than I otherwise would, especially when it came to the Federal Reserve. If the students had been tested on the material, I would have had to go much slower and cover less material. I did not see a change in focus without exams—students consistently participated well in the course. Finally, I felt the quality of the projects was quite high. It is worth noting that this group of students was rather sophisticated. If I did not have prerequisites and upperclassmen, I would likely structure the course differently.

Challenges

The two main challenges of the course were that students felt a little overwhelmed with the condensed timeline, and that it was difficult to involve students on Zoom. If I teach the class again, I will teach it during the full semester and in person, which will hopefully help with both. If I were forced to use Zoom again, I would use a random number generator to identify students at home to answer questions.

Other possible topics

If I were to teach this course again, I would not change much about the general structure. However, there are two things worth noting. While I did cover trade, I believe this topic could have been made more of a focus. Students enjoyed this section and I believe it was worthwhile. Also, students read a paper on social distancing as a public good, but I also believe other microeconomic tools could have been used to discuss mask wearing or other public health policies or phenomena.

Materials

Please see https://works.bepress.com/sara-gundersen/ for the syllabus, reading list, projects, and copies of in-class work. The work is under the Economics of COVID-19 course section at the bottom. Please contact me at sara.gundersen@valpo.edu if you use or adapt any materials.

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