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Five Tips for Education Reporters Covering the Coronavirus

How COVID-19 health crisis could impact students and schools, and what education leaders are doing to prepare

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As the number of reported cases of the COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, continues to mount in the U.S., here are five things education reporters should keep in mind when covering the health crisis and its impact on schools and colleges. (This post will be periodically updated as circumstances warrant.)

Keep Calm and Report On

In any health crisis, the news media is a critical source of information for the public. Education reporters can, and should, play a key role in their newsroom coverage, given that schools are a significant factor in efforts to contain and limit the existing outbreak of the coronavirus.

At the same time, the media must avoid contributing to misinformation, rumors, or even panic. Education Week has already assembled a wealth of information for educators on how to respond to a local outbreak, questions for parents to ask, and a roundup of how local districts are responding. (There’s also a map for tracking school closures.) Education reporters are already doing a good job at amplifying the message that prevention is key to reducing the spread of the virus. The Tampa Bay Times’ Jeffrey Solochek and Marlene Sokol detailed what the Hillsborough School District — with 200,000 students — is doing to prepare for the virus, including adding hand sanitizer dispensers to nearly 1,000 buses, as well as in school hallways.

Here are five resources for quick facts and updates on the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis:

“District workers also stocked up on soap, put up posters reminding everyone of healthy habits like sneezing into your shirt sleeve, and created videos teaching children how to wash their hands,” they write.

Put Data (Especially Potentially Scary Data) in Context

When sharing information on confirmed cases of the virus or even deaths, explain what those numbers mean relative to other health risks. So far, there have been more than 87,000 cases reported worldwide, including about 150 in at least 18 U.S. states, including 44 in Washington state. Approximately 3,300 deaths across the globe have been attributed to the virus, with at least 11 in the U.S. By comparison, about 18,000 people have already died of the flu this year, according to the federal Centers for Disease of Control and Prevention. (See the CDC’s new guidance and considerations on school closings here.)

That being said, the flu is very rarely fatal, with a death rate of about 0.02%. The coronavirus’ death rate is significantly higher, at about 2% worldwide. But even that number needs explaining, as it refers only to the number of deaths relative to confirmed cases. With testing kits in short supply — and the accuracy of some of those tests in question — more people may have contracted the virus than what’s been reported. In other words, the actual fatality rate may be lower. Good sources of information include the CDC’s coronavirus fact page, the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance for educators, and the World Health Organization’s advice for the public.

How Ready Are Your Local Schools?

The CDC has urged school districts and higher education institutions to prepare now for potential outbreaks. In early March, the agency’s director told parents to ask schools about plans for early dismissals, closures, and having students keep up with their school work remotely. Districts should also be sharing plans for keeping schools clean and helping students take steps to reduce the spread of the virus by properly washing their hands, not touching their faces, and avoiding unnecessary physical contact. Education reporters should be asking the same questions. The Seattle Times has produced valuable work on this front in recent weeks. (The majority of the U.S. deaths from the virus have been reported in Washington state.)

At least one district in the region has already closed a school, even though health officials said it wasn’t necessary, reported Seattle Times reporter Dahlia Bazzaz.

“Even a low risk is too much,” Michelle Reid, the superintendent of the Northshore School District, the first to close a campus, told The Seattle Times. A second district in Washington state also closed a school after a student tested positive for the virus, and a district in Oregon closed a school due to a positive test by an employee.

Given how communities struggle with multiple days of canceled school as a result of snow storms or hurricanes, it’s important to ask what the plans are for even longer stretches. The nonprofit news outlet EdSource provided a Q&A for California families on how schools are responding to the crisis. The Arizona Republic also shared details of local districts’ preventative measures and contingency plans, as did the Los Angeles Times’ education team. In California, where at least a handful of charter and private schools have already opted to cancel classes, Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency and more school closures are expected, according to EdSource.

A Big Test for Online Learning?

Separate from the health risks, the coronavirus threatens to disrupt student learning. This is especially true if schools cancel classes for an extended period (either out of an abundance of caution or in the midst of a localized outbreak). That’s already happening in China, where the virus is significantly more widespread. Across China, many students have been home for weeks, with classes not expected to resume anytime soon.

But switching to online learning is harder than it sounds, reports Chalkbeat’s Yesenia Robles, and educational technology companies are walking a fine line between promoting their products and avoiding the appearance of capitalizing on the health crisis.

In a piece published by The 74, Adam Tyner, the associate director of research for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, interviewed educators in China for takeaways that might benefit U.S. schools. First up, says Tyner: The top priority is to save lives. Even if distance learning proves difficult or less effective than classroom instruction, it’s better to keep kids home if it means reducing the spread of illness.

As Education Week reported, districts that already have distance learning programs in place might have an easier time ramping those up than starting from scratch. Writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan Snyder looked at whether local colleges could conceivably move classes entirely online, at least in the short term.

It’s Not Just About Lost Instructional Time

In the Bay Area, high school students are bracing for the cancellation of spring proms. After-school sports and enrichment programs are being scaled back or shut down. While prom could arguably be rescheduled, these other cancellations can cause significant disruptions for families, especially in households with working parents.

How are families handling unexpected needs for child care? Will companies allow more employees to work from home if schools are closed? Will students’ academic records suffer if their families keep them home even if school is open? In New York City, school officials are trying to figure out whether those kinds of absences will count against them when they apply for the city’s highly competitive exam schools. (Chalkbeat says the answer is “yes,” at least for now.)

These challenges aren’t just for the K-12 population. U.S. college students in study abroad programs — particularly in Italy, where the coronavirus outbreak is more widespread — have been sent home. In Texas, Rice University has suspended all of its study abroad programs and canceled international spring break travel, reported Brittany Britto for The Houston Chronicle.