Educators: It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know’

Rather than present a best guess as fact, provide students with the tools they need to stay up to date on COVID-19
By: | April 20, 2020
(Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash)(Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash)
Hannah Dismuke teaches science at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts, a Guilford County Schools magnet school in High Point, North Carolina.

Hannah Dismuke teaches science at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts, a Guilford County Schools magnet school in High Point, North Carolina.

Students around the country are rightfully anxious about COVID-19 and its impact on their lives. They have a lot of questions, and they are looking to us, their teachers, for answers.

Among those questions: “How did it start?” “Will I get it?” “Will my grandmother get it?” “How long is school going to be closed?” “Are we heading toward widespread curfews and lockdowns?” and “Are people of certain races and ethnicities more susceptible to catching it?”

Continue focusing on media literacy

It’s tempting to put on a brave face and provide answers to these unknowable questions. It’s natural to want to comfort our students, relieve their anxieties and tell them that things will go back to normal soon. Realistically, however, we can’t possibly do that. We’re in unprecedented times, and no one—not the president, not the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not the World Health Organization—has all the answers.


Read: How educators can build equity in an online learning era


It’s our job as educators to protect our students from bad information. This is going to be especially critical as schools around the country continue to close down and implement distance learning. Students who have online access are going to be tethered to the internet for many hours a day, making it easier for them to disappear down rabbit holes filled with bad information and conspiracy perspectives.

But the last thing we want to do is to pass along a best guess as fact. That would erode trust at a time when following directions could have life or death consequences.

As a teacher, it’s OK to admit that you don’t know everything. What we can do is give our students the tools they need to stay informed with reliable information throughout the crisis. Media literacy is not new, but teaching students how to identify sensational and fake news takes on a whole new level of importance in times like these.

Misinformation can cause anxiety and panic. It can lead to discrimination. And it can cloud people’s judgement, preventing them from taking necessary precautions or getting the medical help they need.

With ed tech tools, my students are exploring a variety of perspectives related to the pandemic, including learning the science behind the inner workings of these types of viruses.

Provide access to the facts

Today’s technology allows teachers to share content from reputable sources that provide relevant information to complement existing lesson plans. For example, while discussing the structure and function of viruses with my biology class, I shared an article about separating the facts from the falsehoods regarding COVID-19.

Education technology platforms have helped me teach these topics even outside the classroom. Even now that my state has transitioned to distance learning, I am able to find accessible COVID-19 content to share with my students on Newsela. Platforms like Canvas allow me to easily assign articles while my students are learning from home, and apps like Remind give me the ability to instantly notify students that the assignments are available.


Read: Updated: 105 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic


With these tools, my students are exploring a variety of perspectives related to the pandemic, including learning the science behind the inner workings of these types of viruses. Our students are curious to learn more about the news they’re hearing about at home, and using the technology available to teachers is the best way to make that happen.

Like me, you should be heartened that the top questions asked on Newsela, for instance, by U.S. students about COVID-19 include: “What does a credible source look like?” “Whom should I trust?” and “Should I be wearing a mask to protect myself?” More encouraging is the fact that the top articles answering those questions are from The Associated Press, History.com, Science News, Smithsonian.com and PBS NewsHour.

Misinformation spreads like wildfire in times like these, and it’s going to be tough combating some of the more harmful rumors when concrete answers are hard to come by. Despite students being out of the classroom for the foreseeable future, it’s our responsibility as teachers to make sure they have reputable information to satisfy curiosity, calm anxieties and keep them engaged as responsible citizens.

We can’t let them down.


Hannah Dismuke teaches science at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts, a Guilford County Schools magnet school in High Point, North Carolina.


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