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As the great school experiment unfolds, poignant stories and perils abound

As the great school experiment unfolds, poignant stories and perils abound

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
A student follows along remotely with their regular school teacher's online live lesson from a desk separated from others by pla
A student follows along remotely with their teacher's online lesson from a desk separated from others by plastic barriers at a tutoring center in Culver City, California.
(Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Like many children across the country, last spring’s remote learning was hard for Lisa Bradley’s second-grade son.

He would wake up at night, crying. In the morning, he would argue, procrastinate and plead to avoid remote school, as Bradley struggled to manage her website design business. 

When his private school opens next week in the Seattle area, Bradley plans to send him, despite a preexisting condition that could make her more susceptible to COVID-19.

“I have to balance his mental and social health with my desire to keep everyone safe,” she said. “If it were short-term, sure, we can endure that level of suffering, but for a year or two? I feel like I have to take a bit of a risk.”

Like Bradley, parents across the country are weighing the risks of sending their children to school while others are struggling to work while their kids learn remotely. The ongoing pandemic has created a bewildering educational landscape filled with agonizing parental decisions, teacher dissatisfaction, and shifting guidelines for what constitutes a safe return.

“It is a fast-moving story,” said Dennis Roche, the president of Burbio.com, a data service focusing on schools that has created an updated map of U.S. K-12 public schools’ decisions on in-person and remote instruction plans. “It’s very fluid – as of late August, there was still a lot of movement.”

Tracking the big picture

Early in the summer, most states planned for in-person classes, but that started to shift in July when sunbelt states began to push school start dates back, said Roche, whose company aggregates school calendars, web sites, local news and Facebook posts, with a map updated every 72 hours.

By August, large districts in places ranging from California to Illinois had announced they were starting the year with virtual instruction, citing rising coronavirus cases and uncertainty around student, teacher and staff safety. While Burbio doesn’t tie the data to COVID-19 figures, there are plenty of places with virtual learning and low case counts while other areas have higher COVID numbers and in-person schooling, he said.  

As of this week, about of 55% of U.S. K-12 public school students are attending school remotely, while about 20% are in a hybrid model and 25% are going to school in person. That’s down from a high of 62% remote learning last week. 

States’ criteria for reopening also varies greatly, with some offering strict guidance for certain levels of COVID-19 and others leaving decisions up to the individual districts.

Roche said he’d like to see more stories looking into how students are handling in person learning.  How is the mental health of students who are returning in person? What is it like to be wearing masks and distanced from your teacher and classmates? And is real learning still taking place? 

Another idea: With 10 to 15 million students in K-12 attending in-person schools, why are there relatively few outbreaks?

“There’s a story to write: How are they managing?” he said.

Coverage challenges

But that story of COVID-19 cases in schools could be hard to cover, given the uneven virus tracking we’re seeing nationwide, as recently detailed by Politico. The data on cases at schools is “inconsistent, erratic – and sometimes purposely kept out of the public’s reach,” wrote reporters Bianca Quilantan and Dan Goldberg.

That’s in part because federal rules don’t require reporting numbers of COVID-19 cases, and some states and school systems aren’t sharing the numbers, citing privacy concerns. Amid the vacuum, ad hoc trackers are popping up across the country, creating a patchwork of anecdotal and inconsistent data that can hinder researchers looking to learn from the reopening experiment.  

Meanwhile, there are reports that the Trump administration has pressured health officials to not discuss the risks of COVID-19 to children or advocate for mask wearing, according to emails obtained by Politico. Dr. Anthony Fauci told the outlet he hadn’t seen the emails and speaks on scientific evidence. 

Sending her child off  

When Bradley sends her child off Thursday, she will take some comfort in the small school’s efforts to prevent spread, such as having students wear masks, opening the windows frequently and keeping individual classes isolated from the rest of the school.

That pod-like atmosphere isn’t so different from groups of families who have formed small learning groups with other remote learning classmates: “This is essentially a small learning pod, it just happens to be at the school.”

Still, the change will impact her day-to-day life. The family had been hanging out with a few friends in person outside without masks. Just last week, her son got a cough after playing with a neighbor outside. Although a COVID-19 test came back negative, it was a wake-up call that made the family even more careful.

With her son back in school, those other playdates will likely go away.

“It’s going to make me more careful,” Bradley said. “I need to make choices that will protect students and teachers.”

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TIPS FOR REPORTERS

Dr. Naomi Bardach, a UC San Francisco professor and pediatrician who has been closely following the back-to-school experiment and who participates in the UCSF Collaborative to Advise on Re-opening Education Safely, outlined a framework for journalists to use when reporting on new COVID-19 cases among children and research related to schools reopening.

We caught up with Bardach via email for her insights on smart coverage of schools and COVID-19 spread among children, and she offered the following advice:

Be mindful how you cover new cases:  We already know that children can develop COVID-19, so new stories about children getting COVID-19 don’t change our understanding, and “should not be used to fan the flames of fear,” she said. While it’s fine to report these new cases, it’s important to acknowledge children contracting COVID-19 isn’t a new thing. She pointed to “a very well done study” in Spain early in the pandemic that found roughly 5% of adults and 3% of children had antibodies in a sample of the community. That was a lot more children than had been diagnosed in real time due to limited symptoms in kids and a general tendency not to test them, she said.  

Add context on how kids get COVID-19: The jury is still out when it comes to school transmission, so don’t automatically assume increasing cases among children comes from the school setting. Increasing number of cases in kids likely reflects an increasing number of community cases, since most kids get COVID-19 from a close household contact — that was true even when schools were open, she said, pointing to an Australian study. It’s also why it’s important to get community prevalence down when schools are reopened. (She did not offer a specific figure but the Centers for Disease Control has a chart detailing the risk of reopening schools under specific metrics.)

Think critically about new studies involving children:  When covering new research, consider whether the study tell us anything about transmission in the school-based setting. In order to teach us something about transmission, the research needs to talk about index cases — the first identified cases in the school setting — and their contacts and the order of who got symptoms when, she said. The students’ ages are also relevant. If that information is not shared initially, ask if it’s known. We know almost nothing about middle school, for instance, since there are few studies specifically looking at that group, she said.

Does it teach something new? If the study does talk about transmission in a school-based session, point out whether it teaches us something new. For example, we already know that mitigation strategies such as masks, physical distancing, ventilation, small stable cohorts, good hand hygiene, and symptomatic screening and testing are extremely important. There are already cases enforcing what not to do, such as the Georgia camp study, and what is possible when safeguards are in place, such as the Rhode Island day care experience

Be cautious with viral load studies: Exercise caution when reporting on viral load studies of symptomatic younger children, she advised. They’re extremely limited to date and don’t offer documentation of actual transmission, she said. If you chose to report on a viral load study, think about the sample of children studied and ask if it was a biased sample that won’t likely relate to children going back to school overall. For example, there was a recent study on viral load that used a sample of 192 children from early in the pandemic who were symptomatic, 18 of whom had multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, signifying “this is an extremely unusual group of children since MIS-C is rare. Extrapolating from this group to school children in general is not a good idea, she said.

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