When science doesn’t yet have the answers

Back-to-school time is usually greeted with delight by children and parents. This year, school has become a hellscape of uncertainty due to the United States’ failure to subdue the coronavirus. We all want children to be back at school, learning and playing with their peers. How to get them there with at least a modicum of safety is the latest challenge in a year of extraordinary challenges.

On the face of it, making schools safe enough in a pandemic seems like a straightforward public health question. But though scientists have learned a great deal in the last seven months about how the coronavirus is transmitted and how to reduce risk, there’s still so much we don’t know, especially when it comes to kids. And as with too many other issues involving this pandemic, misinformation is rampant.

To find out what the science really says about children and COVID-19, five of our reporters set to work evaluating current research and interviewing a wide range of scientists across disciplines. Our reporters then distilled that information into a concise report addressing key questions about COVID-19, children and schools.

What we found out is that because the science is still uncertain on how the coronavirus affects children and how readily they infect others, there’s no clear path to keeping kids safe, or even reducing risk. Though children appear less likely to become seriously ill or die than adults, youngsters do get infected. They also can transmit the virus to others, including educators, school staff and family members who are at higher risk of serious illness merely by being adults. Countries that have successfully reopened schools have done so first by achieving much lower rates of community spread than in the United States. Then those schools paid strict attention to social distancing, wearing masks and hygiene, including handwashing and frequent cleaning of classrooms.

So education this fall, from pre-K all the way up through college, will be a “massive collection of experiments,” our reporters write, whether the students are in classrooms or online. Many of us at Science News, including me, find our own families in the midst of that experiment. We’re right there with the many millions of families struggling to figure out how to keep family members as safe as possible while getting children the education they need.

It didn’t have to be this way. Solutions will emerge, though not as quickly as we need them. New data will provide more clarity; lessons can be learned from the countries that are successfully managing school during a global pandemic. Many of those lessons will be painful reminders of how we have failed America’s children. But we are learning through experience.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.