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Worlds Collide When Three Science Reporters—And Parents—Cover Coronavirus And Schools

Since MarchScience has reported on the research—and lack thereof—guiding the hard decisions schools have faced in the coronavirus pandemic. After stories in the spring and summer, an article this week examines schools in countries with high viral transmission. The reporters and editor steering this coverage don’t leave it behind when the workday ends: All three have school-age children. In this conversation, they reflect on the intersection of the personal and the professional.

Lila Guterman: Gretchen and Jennifer, I’m happy to have the chance to chat with you after editing your stories on this topic! All of our kids are close in age, ranging from eight to 13. But we’ve experienced three very different school environments: I’m in Washington, D.C., where public schools including my kids’ have been closed since March; Gretchen is in Berlin, where the public school her children attend opened this fall with full classes after a limited reopening in April; and Jennifer is in Philadelphia, with two children in private schools that reopened in September.

So, what has it been like living what you write?

Gretchen Vogel: I was motivated to do these stories because I wanted answers. In Germany, families are required to send school-aged kids to in-person school, so I didn’t have a choice about whether to send my children back. But I wanted to know what the risks were (or are), and how I could help minimize them, both for my family and for the school.

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel: Like Gretchen, I had personal reasons to dive into this—and we both have the advantage, as science reporters, to be able to connect with people who know a lot more than we do. But I didn’t expect the range of emotions that covering this has entailed, and the disorientation and stress of so many intersections between my reporting and the experience of navigating school with my children. It’s been weird to toggle, sometimes in the same hour, between chatting with an infectious disease doctor about how kids might spread this virus to agonizing over how best to support my children and protect our family.

And Gretchen, just like we embarked on this because we wanted answers, now I feel like I should have them! But I’m reminded that our reporting has uncovered how tough answers are to come by.

G.V.: I know the feeling. Way back in April I thought, “Hey, Sweden has its schools open, and they have great epidemiologists there. I bet they have some answers already!” But when I started making calls, I was shocked to learn that almost no one was keeping track of what was happening in Swedish schools. As time wore on, I kept expecting solid data to appear. Schools are open all across Europe! I was so sure that by now, we’d be able to say how often a kid or teacher infects someone else at school. But, to my dismay, other countries haven’t done much better than Sweden did collecting information on school outbreaks. The data are still really thin. And as our school has discussed how much to keep windows open, whether air purifiers are a worthwhile investment, and whether everyone should wear masks all day, I’d been hoping to find clarity in the data. That, too, has been hard to come by.

Lila, I know your experience has been different, with schools closed in Washington. How have the stories we’ve been working on dovetailed with your life?

L.G.: Initially, when our public charter school announced midway through the summer that they would do distance learning for at least the first 2 months, I was relieved not to have to make a decision about whether to send kids to the classroom.

J.C.F.: I admit that in the late summer, I sometimes wished the decision of whether or not to send my kids into school buildings had been made for me. I tend to be pretty data-driven, and I was struggling with a big unanswered question: How much does COVID-19 spread in schools, especially in schools that have lots of protections in place? We ultimately decided to send our 8-year-old in person and keep our middle-schooler remote for the fall term; for various reasons, these felt like the best choices at the time. That said, we are in a hugely privileged position: Our children’s schools have many resources at their disposal, and they were able to open with lots of mitigation, including strict masking requirements. But we still worried about the risk of viral spread in schools.

G.V.: Jennifer, as you know, I had my own worries back in August. After schools opened part time in the spring and few outbreaks emerged, German school authorities announced a return to normal schedules for the fall. Some places required older kids to wear a mask all day, but most decided that was too hard on students, and so only required masks in hallways and other common areas. Once children are at their desks, they can take their masks off. I was sure this would immediately result in outbreaks all over.

To my surprise and relief, it didn’t. Students and teachers at our school have tested positive, but so far, it seems, no one has passed the virus on at school.

J.C.F.: As we’ve traveled this path professionally and personally, accumulating more and more information, I feel like our perspectives have shifted.

L.G.: Definitely. I started out worried that reopening U.S. schools was a terrible idea, that the virus was sure to spread among children and to teachers and families. But with each week that passed without major outbreaks at schools, I became more comfortable with the idea of sending children into school buildings—particularly younger children. Through much of the fall, the D.C. area has had very low transmission of the virus, and it’s been frustrating to watch other areas with more transmission open schools while our area stayed closed. It has really emphasized to me the variation across states and regions here in the U.S. (Unfortunately, as has been true in many places, community transmission in this area has increased in the past week or two.)

Closed schools also make me worry about exacerbating inequities. Kids facing a range of tough circumstances, from homelessness to family job losses, may be especially at risk without in-person school. Because of the overlap of those groups with Black and Latino populations, closed schools disproportionately impact those populations. And it’s very complicated because those are the same groups that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus. Perhaps because of that, in many parts of the U.S., they are opting out of in-person school more than white families. Our school isn’t open, but a survey of families about their comfort with returning to the classroom showed that same divide by race. How do we address these damaging disparities? I don’t know.

J.C.F.: I know how lucky I am to have the option of in-person school for my kids. At the same time, I’ve been reminded that even when a school tries to be safe, it can’t guarantee a space free of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, my daughter developed a sore throat and headache. Alarm bells went off and we immediately scheduled a COVID test. Thankfully, the next day we learned that she was negative. The early symptoms turned out to be a bad cold. My first reaction was immense relief; my second was to wonder, “How did she catch a cold when she’s masked and generally distanced at school?” I’ve since heard of kids across several schools, all of them doing a great job with COVID risk mitigation, who’ve contracted colds and other mild infections. It’s a reminder that masks and small cohorts and extra time outdoors and all the rest don’t eliminate the spread of pathogens among kids.

G.V.: Oh yes, some sort of cold (likely a rhinovirus) raced through our elementary school soon after it opened. Almost everyone got it. It wasn’t COVID-19—all tests were negative. But it definitely made clear that the hygiene measures the school had in place didn’t block all viruses. Then we got a warning from the school about lice in the ninth grade. How are they passing lice to each other when they’re supposed to stay 1.5 meters apart?

One thing I’ve found surprising is the general expectation that if school is open, then life is back to normal. If the kids are sitting in the same classroom all day, without masks, they’re sharing germs anyway, as the reasoning seems to go, so it must be OK for the parents to get together as well. Schools here even held in-person back-to-school nights with parents and staff in August and September. People were supposed to wear masks and keep their distance, but I still thought, “Is this a good idea?” I did attend, and none of the meetings turned into superspreader events. I guess we got lucky.

J.C.F.: I carry an image in my mind of notches on a stick, with each notch representing an activity that can be risky. Every family has its own stick, and we’re all doing something: going to the grocery store, enrolling a kid in soccer, getting necessary dental work. Once my 8-year-old started in-person school, we cut out as much as we could, though we still hosted occasional outdoor masked playdates for our older child learning remotely. Like parents everywhere, we are trying to do the best we can to support our kids and protect our family. It’s a tough balance.

Having a child in school—another notch on our stick—really pushed us to pare down elsewhere. I feel an obligation to reduce risk for not just our family, but also our community. If I can reduce my notches, that helps everyone else.

G.V.: In Germany, there’s an active debate about whether schools should go back to hybrid mode, with classes split in half and taking turns with in-person and distance learning. And more regions are requiring at least older children to keep their masks on in class. Closing restaurants and bars and gyms seems to have had an effect—new cases have flattened a bit—but we will have to see what happens in the coming weeks. I’m kind of surprised—maybe I shouldn’t be?—that my feelings on the topic are still very mixed. Should schools close? I wish I knew!

J.C.F.: Yes! Like you, even after living this, reporting on it, practically marinating in this topic for months, I still don’t know. The rising caseload in the Philadelphia region shows no sign of flattening. More schools are going back to remote learning at least for a couple of weeks. The city’s public school system recently delayed a late November plan for partial reopening. That said, from a big-picture perspective, I feel more comfortable than I did 2 months ago about sending my children to school. Maybe, as Lila suggested earlier, that comes from simply watching schools near and far welcome students every day without disaster striking. It also comes from the research we’ve been learning about. But cases are so high here right now, as is the positivity rate. It’s hard not to feel uneasy. It’s a roller coaster for sure.


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