A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Susanne Kuger about School & Covid-19

Interview with Susanne Kuger, head of the Department of Social Monitoring and Methodology at the German Youth Institute. She is a psychologist by training, with a special interest in cognitive and applied developmental psychology. Susanne Kuger is a fellow in the College for Interdisciplinary Educational Research, jointly funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Jacobs Foundation and the Leibniz Institute.


Your institute is working on a survey — the Corona-KiTa-Studie. What are you trying to find out with this project?

Susanne Kuger profil pictureFirst of all, the Corona-KiTa-Studie is not a single survey, but consists of a total of seven surveys. The main research question is: what is the risk to children, parents and caregivers of children going back to preschool? Are children in preschool facilitators in spreading the virus any further than we already do in open life in general? We are trying to research this by combining several modules of work. Firstly, we are monitoring the re-opening and closure of childcare [facilities] in Germany across all 16 federal states and at the same time, we are monitoring infections using the public statistics from our health institutes — this allows for a comparison of local outbreaks of higher rates of infections and school closures or childcare [facilities] closures or openings.

Secondly, we are using a series of surveys asking caregivers, preschool managers and parents what represent the biggest obstacles to opening childcare [facilities] again. Is it that children have not been there for several months and need to be reintegrated into the routine of childcare? Is it that parents are still not receiving the kind of care that they need, by which we mean the opening hours, the support the children deserve, the restrictions on the provision of meals or anything similar?

And thirdly, we are monitoring children’s caregivers in these settings, to what extent they are afraid of the risk of being infected, whether they are thinking about quitting their jobs — there seems to be some debate on this issue because either they are at some kind of personal risk or they have a family member that might be at risk. There are several research questions behind this and taking all of it together will hopefully resolve some of the following questions: what obstacles are there, how do managers and caregivers deal with them, what solutions are they coming up with and to what extent are children going into preschool facilitating the spread of the virus?


Have you already noticed local outbreaks that might be important in terms of the transmission of the virus?

In our monitoring systems, we have four different indicators where we can see that with the closure of the care institutions and schools in March this year, we did have a steep decline in infectious diseases more generally in children. So, first and foremost, if children do not meet each other they don’t spread viruses at all. We have seen that the re-openings actually lead to an increase in general cold symptoms again. Coronavirus is not involved yet, but children do pass on viruses. That is nothing really new, but it is important to see that closing schools and childcare settings and opening them again actually plays a big part in the spread of viruses.

We are currently trying to research the number of settings that actually closed as a result of coronavirus in the last few months, which is not that easy because, as you might know, Germany doesn’t have one education system, but 16. This means we have 16 different ministries and 16 different types of official statistics to try to harmonise and look through.


When do you plan to have the first results?

Since we are putting together this study from seven different modules, we already have some results. We have a monthly report, which is published on our website — it is only available in German, unfortunately. And we are going to release a quarterly report where we will include a longer report on a pre-study we did involving 100 settings across Germany, in which we asked what kind of solutions are best and should continue to be implemented. This was one of the goals we had with this study: the sooner and the more frequently we release our information, the easier it will be to use it.


How can ministries use this information?

The study is funded by the central German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs. The federal states might deviate from our recommendations, but we do not really have any influence over this. Our monitoring is strictly descriptive. We can simply point out: ‘There might be a problem there, please take a look at it’.

I think the influence that we basically have is that we make all our results public. So journalists look at our results — we do get quite a bit of media coverage. A whole number of settings contact us asking to participate. One of the surveys involves monitoring the re-opening and closure of settings, and it represents a sample of every setting that wants to participate. We have 56 000 settings and 40 000 family caregivers in Germany, and whoever wants to participate may do so. It’s an open survey.


Can you highlight the most important results you have so far?

First of all, it depends on which area you are looking at. I have been talking about the decline in diseases more generally. There has not been any particular rise in COVID-19 infections in settings so far, even though we are opening them already and have been doing so since May. Even though the ratio of children with COVID-19 symptoms and infections is going up, in terms of their share of the number of infected people as a whole, we don’t see any reason to believe that this is owing to childcare [facilities] because, typically, children’s source of infection is their parents. So typically, parents do have some kind of contact with people who have been infected, either at the workplace or when using public transport.

Actually, most of the time, it’s the family parties, weddings and birthdays they are holding during the summertime, that represent the main source of infections in Germany right now.


From September onwards, what are you expecting in terms of the transmission of coronavirus in school settings?

Actually, I suspect that schools can do a lot to prevent it. The strategies that schools are implementing are quite diverse and we are seeing settings with a very strict approach, keeping students in small groups and allocating one or two teachers exclusively to this group, so there is no crossover. They have also been using the outside spaces at different times of the day. Children do not meet in the hallways, so these settings are very strict in their distancing strategies.

However, there are others that struggle with these measures for several reasons: they don’t have enough staff, they don’t have enough rooms and they have difficulty in dealing with demand; they simply cannot cope with the number of parents needing a place or needing care. And I think that we will see variations depending on the kind of strategy that is implemented.


For the schools that cannot implement strict strategies, what would be your advice?

From what we have learned so far, the most important measures are actually to open up the windows at least once an hour. Our medical staff actually suggest changing the air every 15 minutes in an effort to eradicate aerosols. This also means going outside as much as you possibly can. Try to keep groups as small as possible, but still let the children play together.

And the most important thing parents can do is to keep their kids at home if they have two or more symptoms. Some federal states have already discussed the issue and have agreed that as long as children only have a runny nose and show no second symptom over the next 24 hours, it’s okay to bring them to the setting.

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