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Keep this advice in mind when reporting on school reopenings

Keep this advice in mind when reporting on school reopenings

Picture of Giles Bruce
(Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
Teacher Chablis Torres reads to children in a pre-school class during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, California on July 9.
(Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

As part of its “You Asked, We Answered” series, the Center for Health Journalism has been asking journalists what questions they have about reporting on COVID-19. Multiple reporters recently asked for advice on covering school reopenings. Freelance journalist Giles Bruce spoke with education reporters and a public health expert to get some answers.

Tiney Ricciardi moved to Colorado in December to cover cannabis and sports betting for the state’s largest daily newspaper, The Denver Post. Then, as she put it, “the world flipped upside down.”

The coronavirus pandemic has required journalists across the country to report on topics outside their areas of expertise. Ricciardi is no different. When the Post’s former K-12 education reporter moved over to writing about health care, that left a void, which Ricciardi stepped up to fill.

Like many journalists on the education beat nowadays, one of her major focuses of late has been school reopenings. It’s an issue parents around the country are following intently: Will kids have in-person schooling during the upcoming school year, or will learning remain online? Will it be a mix? What will safety measures look like?

Ricciardi has been trying to answer these and similar questions recently in her new role at the Post. “Public health is going to be the guiding light for schools opening in the fall, which makes it even more difficult to predict,” she said.

That’s because COVID-19 cases have been skyrocketing in some parts of the country, while dropping in others, making this a story that’s as localized as they come.

To report on school reopenings in the Denver area, Ricciardi has taken to social media to ask what questions parents have. She then turns to school administrators for more answers.

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Ricciardi has found, for instance, that some parents and teachers want to continue online learning, for safety reasons.

She has been tracking potential safety measures, including masking students, limiting passing opportunities in hallways, altering bus schedules, and avoiding assemblies and eating in the cafeteria. Looming budget crises are another issue she has been paying attention to.

She has also learned that concerns about reopening tend to be highly individualized. For example, students in small, mountainous districts not far outside the Denver metro area are more likely to lack internet connectivity and live long distances from school, making it more difficult to do remote learning and limit bus service.

“I don’t think it’s any different than any beat you’re covering,” Ricciardi said. “Think about your audience and news they can use.”

In that vein, the Post has a landing page online where updates on local school reopenings are posted regularly.

Tara Kirk Sell has also been following this issue in her role as a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Her recommendation for reporters: Be critical, not sensational.

“It would be a big problem if journalists tried to make any time there was a case in a school seem like a huge outbreak,” she said, adding that also means schools need to be transparent. “We really need to have a clear view of what happened.”

Sell suggested some potential story angles to keep an eye on: whether school districts will allow students and teachers with coronavirus risk factors to continue remote learning; whether schools will be more lenient with sick days to limit possible COVID-19 exposure; what to do about water fountains with touch handles; if classes can be held outdoors; and how to deal with rising costs of disinfectant items like hand sanitizer.

She noted that since “hotspots are happening very locally,” reporters should aim to get the most localized data available. She said a good benchmark for school reopenings is whether 5% or fewer of tests are coming back positive in a given area.

“You certainly don't want to see this exponential increase in cases that we’ve seen in some states, like Arizona or Texas or South Carolina. That is a big danger sign,” she said. “We do want to see that there’s hospital capacity and that the number of hospitalizations is not really up either.”

She noted that children are half as likely to get COVID-19, and their infections are less severe. She said kids can transmit the coronavirus but may do so at a lower rate than adults.

Results from countries that have already reopened schools have been mixed, Sell said. For example, Denmark didn’t experience outbreaks, while Israel did (though that country’s schools reportedly had fewer social distancing measures).

Journalist Julia Baum has been reporting on school reopenings for the Pleasanton Weekly, which covers the Bay Area suburb of about 82,000 people.

One possibility under consideration there is a staggered schedule where students come for partial days, a few times a week. That appears to be the most popular option among parents.

“It’s not a question of if the students are going to be returning to school in person — unless the governor clamps down — but a question of how that’s going to look,” Baum said.

She has been attending virtual school board meetings, but the remote nature of those gatherings has made it more challenging to find parents to interview. Some, however, call into the meetings, email her newspaper or comment on stories.

One interesting angle for reporters to explore, Baum said, is the increased role that school nurses will play in the coming year: in educating colleagues and screening students for COVID-19.

“I would say even more so than focusing on obvious things like the layout of the future in the classroom and if kids are going to wear masks, to think about the broader implications of reopenings,” she said. “For example, one huge lingering question for the district I’m covering is child care for essential workers.”

If schools go to staggered, part-time schedules, they will likely need to offer child care for parents who have to work.

“Just be prepared for the divisiveness of the issue,” Baum said. “There’s a lot of strong feelings on both sides about it. I would say that’s the thing to prepare yourself for, in any education reporting in general, is how emotional people get, because they’re so invested in their children.”

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