How Teachers Are Talking to Students About the Coronavirus

By Sarah Schwartz — March 03, 2020 6 min read
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At the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School in Detroit, DaJuanna Travier’s 5th graders can raise any topic on their minds during their Friday restorative discussion circles.

This past week, they wanted to talk about the coronavirus.

They asked Travier if the virus is man-made, or if it was purposefully created to hurt people, she said. A few said they were afraid to travel.

Travier tried to tell her class the facts and stay positive, giving them space to talk about their feelings. She knows her students watch the news, and she understands why they’re curious. “It’s a fear,” she said.

As the number of novel coronavirus cases rise in the United States and more states confirm having patients with the illness, students are coming to school with questions—and teachers are trying to figure out how to answer them.

Students often don’t know the basic facts about the virus, teachers say, like what it is or how it’s different from the common cold or the flu. They may be harboring misconceptions about how it spreads. And kids are worried for their safety. They want to know: What will happen if people in their community get sick?

Though the overall number of COVID-19 cases in the United States remains low, the virus has already started to affect U.S. schools.

When teachers are having these conversations with students, they’re managing two competing priorities, said Stephen Brock, a professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at California State University, Sacramento. Teachers need to give kids the facts about the virus, and emphasize the importance of taking precautions—like frequent handwashing, he said. At the same time, overstating the risk level can make students unnecessarily worried.

“This is really kind of a delicate balancing act,” said Brock, a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and an author of the organization’s curriculum for school safety and crisis.

Knowing—and Sharing—the Facts

Teachers should start with the facts, Brock said.

A guide for parents, developed by NASP and National Association of School Nurses, lays out the information about symptoms and transmission that will be most useful for kids and teenagers. The guide stresses that when kids ask questions, they should get honest answers. “In the absence of factual information, children often imagine situations far worse than reality,” it reads.

How much detail teachers share depends on students’ ages, Brock said. Conversations about how vaccines are developed, for example, might lend helpful context for high schoolers, he said.

But dwelling on the virus could make younger elementary students more anxious.

“Adults need to appreciate that for the youngest ones, their stress is going to be dictated by adult stress,” Brock said.

Elementary teachers should explain to their students that they need to wash their hands well to get rid of germs, which can make us sick. And kids should be reassured that adults are working hard to keep them safe. Other than that, “let their questions be your guide,” Brock said.

“If they’re not stressed or anxious about some sort of external threat, I’m not going to introduce it to them,” he said.

A Higher Threat

Gage Matthews is a teacher at the UNC Hospital School, housed in North Carolina Children’s Hospital. The school, which is part of the local Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, serves patients from age three through the end of high school. Some of Matthews’ students have cancer; others are in outpatient dialysis. Many have compromised immune systems.

“They naturally worry about infections,” he said. “There is some intrinsic fear of … when it comes here, what happens to the community, to the hospital, to the school?”

A recent study from China’s National Health Commission found that patients with preexisting health problems, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, had a higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

North Carolina saw its first confirmed case of coronavirus on Tuesday, the governor’s office reported. The patient is a resident of Wake County, which is nearby to Orange County, where the hospital is located.

Not knowing when or if they will be affected is difficult for students, Matthews said.

“The more confidence that you can have in talking about it, the better,” he said, referring to teachers. Matthews, who is certified to teach science, has tried to calm students by becoming a reliable source of information.

He’s explained what a virus is, and what it means that the coronavirus is a new strain. He’s also assured students that there are a lot of procedures in place at the school to protect them, and that the hospital would have an immediate action plan if they did see any cases of the virus.

Teachable Moment

Matthews isn’t the only one who’s turned the global outbreak into a teachable moment: Some teachers have created lesson plans on the coronavirus.

William Reed, a high school science and math teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago, created a lesson that asks students to evaluate scientific information on the virus, and compare different sources of that information.

Teachers in subjects other than science have found a way into the issue, too.

Samantha Katz, a 9th grade English teacher at Howell High School in Farmingdale, N.J., discussed coronavirus as part of a cause and effect unit. Students brainstormed a list of sectors that the virus could touch—like tourism or the global economy—and researched potential effects.

When new illnesses start to spread, teachers are well-positioned to fight the “epidemic of misinformation,” according to a 2016 report on how teachers responded to the Ebola virus.

The study, conducted by Horizon Research Inc., with help from the National Science Teachers Association and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, found that 80 percent of middle school teachers and 46 percent of elementary school teachers discussed Ebola in class.

Still, they may not have all been relaying accurate information—teachers in the study only got about 75 to 80 percent of questions correct on a quiz about the virus.

Reed, the science teacher, acknowledges in his lesson plan that students may come into class having heard untrue rumors about coronavirus. His lesson draws on guides from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and instructs teachers to correct students’ misconceptions.

Confronting Racism

Both Reed and Katz’s lessons also touch on one other issue: racism and xenophobia directed toward Asians and Asian Americans since the outbreak was first detected in China.

Students and parents have posted accounts of bullying on social media, claiming that kids had taunted their Asian American classmates. Earlier this month, an Asian American student in a Los Angeles County high school was physically attacked by classmates who accused him of having the virus.

Reed’s lesson asks students to watch a news video about the rise in bias incidents directed toward people of Asian descent. Then students answer the prompt: “Based on what you know about the novel coronavirus from this lesson, explain why prejudice against people with Chinese or Asian ancestry who live in countries outside of China has no scientific basis.”

The organization Teaching Tolerance has also published information for educators, on how to challenge racist comments related to the coronavirus in the classroom.

Bullying is always harmful, Brock said. Not only does it hurt the bullied, but trying to find a “scapegoat” for a global health crisis is counterproductive, he said.

Teachers should confront bullying behavior, he said, and turn the conversation back to advice that will be most helpful: “Here are the things that you can do to keep ... you and others, safe and healthy.”

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