Worlds collide when three <cite>Science</cite> reporters—and parents—cover coronavirus and schools

Worlds collide when three <cite>Science</cite> reporters—and parents—cover coronavirus and schools
Since March , Science has reported on the researchand lack thereofguiding the hard decisions schools have faced in the coronavirus pandemic. After stories in the spring and summer , an article this week examines . The reporters and editor steering this coverage dont 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, Im 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 8 to 13. But weve experienced three very different school environments: Im 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.

See all of our coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

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 didnt 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 thisand 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 didnt 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. Its 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 Im reminded that our reporting has uncovered how tough answers are to come by.

GV: 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 thatof 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, wed be able to say how often a kid or teacher infects someone else at school. But, to my dismay, other countries havent 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, Id been hoping to find clarity in the data. That, too, has been hard to come by.

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

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

LG: 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.

JCF: 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 childrens 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.

GV: 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 didnt. Students and teachers at our school have tested positive, but so far, it seems, no one has passed the virus on at school.

JCF: As weve traveled this path professionally and personally, accumulating more and more information, I feel like our perspectives have shifted.

Gretchen Vogel

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 its 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 isnt 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 dont know.

JCF: I know how lucky I am to have the option of in-person school for my kids. At the same time, Ive been reminded that even when a school tries to be safe, it cant 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 shes masked and generally distanced at school? Ive since heard of many kids across several schools, all of them doing a great job with COVID risk mitigation, whove contracted colds and other mild infections. Its a reminder that masks and small cohorts and extra time outdoors and all the rest dont eliminate the spread of pathogens among kids.

GV: Oh yes, some sort of cold ( likely a rhinovirus ) raced through our elementary school soon after it opened. Almost everyone got it. It wasnt COVID-19all tests were negative. But it definitely made clear that the hygiene measures the school had in place didnt 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 theyre supposed to stay 1.5 meters apart?

One thing Ive 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, theyre 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 super-spreader events. I guess we got lucky.

JCF: 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 were 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. Its a tough balance.

Lila Guterman

Having a child in schoolanother notch on our stickreally 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.

GV: In Germany, theres 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 effectnew cases have flattened a bitbut we will have to see what happens in the coming weeks. Im kind of surprisedmaybe I shouldnt be?that my feelings on the topic are still very mixed. Should schools close ? I wish I knew!
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