Divided science leads to confusion over children’s school safety

When reputable scientists present opposing information, how are members of the public - in particular parents - supposed to know who to believe when it comes to the health of their children?

File picture of scientists in protective suits / Credit: iStock

Students are set to return to school on 14th May after nearly two months of forced distance learning.

The government’s decision to re-start classes was made after Finnish public health officials determined there was no great risk for children becoming infected with coronavirus.

However it’s easy to find experts in Finland – and abroad – who hold opposing views.

A new German study, cited widely by Finnish media on Monday, concludes that children might be as contagious as adults.

So if members of the public, especially parents, want to read and believe the science involved, how do they know which scientists to believe?

“People are probably more interested in science now than previously. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s challenging because you need to be an expert in the field and really following that field for a long time to be able to judge the flood of scientific studies from different sources – good studies, bad studies, and everything in between” says Dr Mikael Niku from the Department of Veterinary Biosciences at Helsinki University.

Dr Niku points out that there have been a lot of new coronavirus studies published in the last few months, but they’re not all been peer-reviewed yet, and that can lead to readers forming an incomplete picture based on one study, without the depth of understanding or context to know how important it is, or isn’t.

That new German study has been both lauded by some Finnish scientists, and criticised by others for the way it collected and presented data, and the conclusions it came to.

In particular, the new report – although authored by some of the leading scientists in their field – only measured viral RNA, not actual infectious “live” virus. And while they did find a a highly significant difference between children and adults, they then applied a statistical method used to safeguard against false positive conclusions, and after this correction, the difference did not seem significant anymore.

The widely-cited German study can’t therefore say for sure there was a difference between children and adults, but they also can’t claim there wasn’t any, based on the way the scientists conducted their research.

“Now scientists are in a hurry and studies are published and read as pre-prints that have not been reviewed yet. It’s very challenging for a layperson, or even the best experts right now, to know for sure yet everything about the situation” explains Dr Niku.

One problem he says, is when complex scientific studies get boiled down by necessity to a glib headline and summarised in a couple of newspaper paragraphs.

In the end concludes Dr Niku, “the boring, simple answer is that we should trust the officials and the government.”

“I guess we need to accept they have to make decisions based on very limited knowledge, but still it is surprising about the tendency of people to easily trust individual stories or individual science reports rather than the experts in THL” he adds.

“The nature of science is not to produce an absolute truth of anything” says Niku “but to find out the most probable state of things, based on available evidence.”

File picture of younger children in classroom / Credit: iStock

Options for going back to school 

Parents who are worried about the health risks of sending their children back to classrooms on 14th May do have some options open to them.

“Parents don’t have the right just to say I think it isn’t safe for my children to go to school, so in principle the children are obliged to go to school when they are open because we have compulsory primary education in Finland” says Jaakko Salo from the Trade Union of Education in Finland OAJ.

In practice parents can ask for a leave of absence for their children from the school, especially during the two weeks when classes start back again, but before the terms end. And children belonging to special risk groups, with underlying health conditions, can be exempted from classes with a doctor’s certificate.

Jaakko Salo says that if parents keep their children away from school without permission, and with no good reason, then in normal circumstances the school would report the parents to social services.

“But in this situation I don’t see the schools will contact them during these two weeks we have left of the school year” he says.

OAJ would have preferred for schools to stay closed for now, evaluating what happens in other countries when classes resume, then re-start Finnish schools in August again for the new academic year.

“We are not the health experts, and we are not quarreling with health experts. But in other countries where they are now openings schools in Germany, Denmark, Norway they have two months of school work left. They have this long time to do it in a slow manner so they have time to practice these exceptional safety rules” explains OAJ’s Jaakko Salo.

In Finland he says, with just two weeks left of the academic year, those days spent in the classroom practicing physical distancing, changing the way classes are timetabled, resourced and taught will be difficult and demanding on teachers and students alike.

Indeed, the initial government advice on how classes should be conducted during the two weeks at the end of May has already had to be revised to take into account that in lower secondary school it’s not possible to keep the same group of students in the same classroom with the same teacher all day.

“We think these two weeks it would be okay with thoe distance lessons, and then look at other countries and see what results they get.”