Guidance for questions on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

You can expect many questions about coronavirus/COVID-19 like ‘How does covid infect people?’ and personal ones like ‘How are you coping?’. This advice will help you if you have concerns about how to answer the students.

So far, the most common coronavirus questions from students are variations on:

  • When will we have a cure?
  • Have you found a cure?
  • How has your life been affected?

Think about how you might answer these questions as you read the following guidance.

Key points:

Be clear about your knowledge

If a coronavirus science question is not related to your discipline please be very clear about that, and what you do and don’t know.

Always be very clear about the limits of your relevant expertise, when what you say is an opinion, and when what you say is based on current fact from up-to-date sources.

Yes, it is important to acknowledge and respond to students ASK and CHAT questions on the topic. But it is also absolutely fine to say ‘I don’t know’, or even not respond if you’re not confident of your answer.

Remember that you appear to the students as ‘expert scientist’ no matter your background, and this comes with responsibility, which we’re sure you are aware of.

Be helpful and signpost

Students (and their families) may be anxious, and uncertainty and lack of information fuels anxiety.

Even if your area has nothing to do with coronavirus, you have skills at finding and assessing scientific information that the students don’t have. Giving basic information and signposting to reliable sources is useful, and could be empowering to students.

Signposting to constantly updated guidance, like NHS site pages, is a good idea (we’ve gathered some useful links as part of this guidance). As is actively explaining the importance of finding reliable information.

Be clear with your language

First, it is always a good idea to use plain English and simpler, more common words when communicating. This is never ‘dumbing down’ your work, rather it is ‘opening up’. It makes it easier for students (and adults) to understand you. So say ‘deadly’ not ‘pathogenic’, ‘find’ not ‘identify’, ‘use’ not ‘utilize’.

You can test your first few answers in something like Hemingway App to highlight uncommon words and complex sentences.

Second, keep in mind that levels of health literacy are generally low for everyone.

“Health information in current circulation is written at too complex a level for 43% of working age adults (16-65 years); this figure rises to 61% if the health information includes numeracy.” Source: Health Literacy UK

Even among GPs, risk-benefit understanding is not impressive.

Our students come from a range of backgrounds and abilities. If you want to make sure readers understand what you say, pitch your language simpler than you might think. This is true of all your answers on this site, but is especially crucial with pandemic-relevant information.

For more information, read our full advice for writing clearly in I’m a Scientist.

Keep the IAS site reliable

Because we host searchable web content, we at IAS have a duty to make sure our users are properly informed, especially about coronavirus.

If you have the right background, you can help us when you see an ASK answer from another scientist that needs correcting. Please leave a comment with a polite correction, even if you’re not asked directly.

You will also see comments from Moderators on all relevant questions to make future site visitors aware about the potentially out-of-date nature of answers.

If you spot something that is really wrong in an ASK question and should be removed (or you feel uncomfortable correcting it for whatever reason), let know and tell us why it should be amended.

We can then review, edit or delete the answer. Likewise, if your answer is corrected or deleted, please don’t take it personally. The situation changes quickly and it is all about keeping people well informed.

Personal responses: Use judgement

Part of the strength of the I’m a Scientist format is that students have direct, personal interactions with scientists. They find out that you are real people just like them.

If students ask personal questions like “How are you coping with lockdown?”, or, “Are you scared about the pandemic?”, then some personal, honest responses could be reassuring. But some truthful responses could be frightening, or increase students’ fear and anxieties.

Please use your judgement about how much to share. We all have ‘OMG!’ moments about the pandemic at times. And then we adjust, and move forwards. Maybe don’t answer personal questions on your worst day.

Also, please bear in mind that there will be students in all sorts of situations. Some will be in a highly vulnerable group for medical reasons. Many will have family members who are. Many will have family members who are medical staff or other key workers, who they are anxious about.

Your answers will be read by many students, not just the ‘asker’ of the question, so think about how it will read to all of those people.

Useful links to more information

Frequently updated authoritative sources

Accessible science explainers

Mental health

Collections of specialised info and infographics to use in answers

Practical ways to stop coronavirus. Simple explanations and infographics of the basic things everyone can do, collected in one place.

Coronavirus comms for charities. Links to specialised information on coronavirus from a range of charities. For example Diabetes UK information on benefits, and statutory sick pay from Citizens Advice Bureau for people with diabetes.

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