Between Rules and Risk: Children’s Social Navigation in Times of Covid-19 at two German Primary Schools

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Between Rules and Risk:

Children’s Social Navigation in Times of Covid-19 at two German Primary Schools

Master’s thesis Carolin Albers Student number: 13295748

Supervisor: Carola P. Tize Co-Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ria Reis Second reader: Dr. Patrick R. Brown

Master of Medical Anthropology and Sociology University of Amsterdam

06/08/2021 Word count: 21,619

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1 Preface

On a surprisingly sunny afternoon on the 1st of March, I find myself riding on an overcrowded rail replacement bus to my fieldwork site in Stade, Germany. Rail replacement transport is always nerve-wracking, but during a pandemic, the crowds rushing into the bus made me doubt the whole proportionality of my plan. I tried to be the last to get on the bus, so I could stay close to the door - as a precaution and out of superstition: maybe I can magically breathe away the risky bus air when the door opens?

While my breath, filtered through the FFP2 mask, now condenses on the windowpane, I calculate my risk of contracting Corona if someone on the bus is indeed positive. With 35 per 100,000 inhabitants, the incidence in Stade is relatively low, the FFP2 mask provides fairly good protection, and if the door opens regularly, my risk of contracting it could be quite small. But the bus stops only once during the 27-minute journey. At the final stop, I literally fall out of the moving germ breeder - air!

(Fieldnotes, 01.03.2021)

For the past 17 months, the pandemic has shaped our lives, closing schools and offices, demanding us to stay away from loved ones, and avoid unnecessary travelling. Facing the everyday challenges of this pandemic life on the journey to my fieldwork site in Stade, I found myself continuously torn between concern and insouciance, reason and superstition – rules and risk. My own discomfort in navigating these challenges, my irrational hope to breathe away the risky air, and my relief upon leaving the bus made me realise the complexity of my own risk management. Yet, recognising my privilege in deliberately choosing to travel and stay close to the door reminded me that while children’s everyday lives are at least as much impacted by the pandemic as mine, they are often disregarded as social actors, limiting their freedom of decision- making (James 2011:172). I wondered what layers of complexity such a positionality would add to navigating these stressful situations. How would children’s risk perception influence their

navigation – and vice versa? With this research, I aim to contribute to a better understanding of these entanglements and add children’s perspectives to the pandemic discourse.

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2 Acknowledgement

I would like to express my deepest thanks to my supervisor Carola Tize for the excellent supervision of this thesis. Her inestimable advice and plentiful knowledge encouraged and

inspired me throughout my studies. I am also extraordinarily grateful to Prof. Dr. Ria Reis, whose expertise was invaluable for the realisation of this thesis.

This project would not have been possible without Janko Lerche, whose determination and creativity were indispensable and whose enthusiasm made this research a true joy.

I further wish to thank the headmasters and teachers involved in the project for their open minds and for agreeing to additional responsibilities despite the challenges of the pandemic times.

I would like to give my special regards to the protagonists of this research: the children and their families. I owe the success of this work in large part to your commitment.

I would also like to thank the lecturers at the University of Amsterdam for their preparatory advice and support, as well as my fellow MAS students for creating a social and academic network to rely on.

I further wish to express my gratitude to my friends, who were my emotional cornerstones despite the challenges of geographical distance in times of travel restrictions.

I am exceptionally grateful to my parents for their everlasting support, critical questions – and indulgent acceptance of my answers.

Finally, thank you, Richard, for being a true ally – always.

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3 Abstract

The current Corona pandemic and the resulting measures place children at a unique positionality.

While there is uncertainty about their susceptibility to severe outcomes of the disease and their role in spreading the virus, their everyday lives are severely impacted by the measures, affecting areas such as family life, education, and encounters with peers. To mitigate potentially harmful effects of these implications, it is essential to understand how children perceive and navigate pandemic risk. Drawing on a combined conceptual framework, employing the concept of social navigation (Vigh 2009:420) and the emotion-risk-assemblage (Lupton 2013b:640), this study provides a novel perspective on children’s navigational tactics concerning risks of contagion. The research involved 20 children aged 9 to 12 years at two German elementary schools in socially disadvantaged urban areas, with whom I conducted qualitative research methods including participant observation, online interviews, and photovoice. To analyse the data, I employed an abductive approach. I demonstrate that the children’s understandings of Corona employed a combination of biomedical concepts and non-rational explanations. In turn, their risk assessment drew on their disease knowledge, trust, and magical explanations. Motivated by their risk

assessment and disease knowledge, their navigation tactics involved constantly shifting between adherence to the Corona measures and defiance, which allowed them to balance safety and freedom in an environment of ever-changing rules and risk.

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Table of content

1 CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION ... 5

1.1 PROBLEM STATEMENT ... 5

1.2 LITERATURE REVIEW ... 7

1.3 CONTEXT ... 9

2 CHAPTER 2: RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK ... 10

2.1 RESEARCH QUESTIONS ... 11

2.2 SOCIAL NAVIGATION ... 12

2.3 EMOTION-RISK-ASSEMBLAGE ... 13

2.4 NAVIGATING RISKS IN TIMES OF CHANGE ... 15

3 CHAPTER 3: RESEARCH METHODOLOGY ... 15

3.1 LOCATION AND RECRUITMENT ... 16

3.2 ONLINE INTERVIEWS ... 17

3.3 PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION ... 18

3.4 PHOTOVOICE ... 18

3.5 ANALYSIS AND WRITING ... 19

3.6 OPERATIONALISATION OF RESEARCH QUESTIONS ... 20

3.7 ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS ... 22

3.8 POSITIONALITY ... 23

4 CHAPTER 4: CHILDREN’S CORONA KNOWLEDGE ... 24

4.1 AT SCHOOL ... 24

4.2 ABOUT THE VIRUS ... 25

4.3 ON MEASURES ... 29

4.4 CONCLUSION ... 32

5 CHAPTER 5: CHILDREN’S CORONA RISK ASSESSMENT ... 33

5.1 BODIES AT RISK ... 33

5.2 RISKY BODIES ... 34

5.3 RISKY PLACES ... 37

5.4 RISKY MATERIALS ... 38

5.5 RISKY TEMPORALITIES ... 39

5.6 SPACES OF UNCERTAINTY ... 40

5.7 CONCLUSION ... 42

6 CHAPTER 6: CHILDREN’S SOCIAL NAVIGATION OF CORONA ... 42

6.1 ADHERING TO THE RULES ... 42

6.2 TAKING RISKS ... 43

6.3 BETWEEN RULES AND RISK ... 45

6.4 CONCLUSION ... 51

7 CHAPTER 7: CONCLUSION ... 52

7.1 DISCUSSION ... 52

7.2 LIMITATIONS AND DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH ... 60

7.3 CONCLUSION ... 60

8 BIBLIOGRAPHY ... 61

9 ANNEX ... 71

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5 1 Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Problem statement

In December 2019, a novel Corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) spread throughout the globe, leading to overburdened intensive care units and, as of July 2021, 4.17 million deaths worldwide (World Health Organization 2021). To inhibit the spread of the airborne disease, many countries shut down branches of public life such as schools, shops, and restaurants along with the

recommendation to wear face masks, keep physical distance, avoid meeting other households and mind hand hygiene (ibid.). As the virus poses particular threats to the elderly and chronically ill, these adjustments in society require a thorough weighing of individual freedom versus risk management, resulting in a particularly heated debate about the role and responsibilities of

children (Andresen et al. 2021:10–11; Vogel et al. 2021:2). While the findings on children’s part in spreading the virus diverge, the lockdowns undeniably affect all sectors of their everyday lives, such as education, family life, and peer interactions (Andresen et al. 2021:28–40).

Several researchers suggest that children in elementary school are neither the principal drivers of the virus’ spread nor especially susceptible to severe outcomes (Goldstein, Lipsitch, and Cevik 2021:366; Ludvigsson 2020:1528; Rasmussen and Thompson 2020:744; Viner et al. 2021:154).

Against the backdrop that the lockdowns affect their psychological well-being and development, some researchers support re-opening schools and other institutions, considering them unlikely to raise Corona incidences (Ludvigsson 2020:1528). Remote-teaching is particularly challenging for elementary school children who have not yet established a habit of studying, as well as for children with special educational needs, language barriers, or from socially disadvantaged households for whom digital facilities are scarce and specialised help out of reach (Dovzhenko 2020:51; Neece, McIntyre, and Fenning 2020:747). Being frequently critiqued for its diverging digital infrastructure, Germany represents a particularly challenging case for remote-learners (Handschell 2012:94; Hüther, Südekum, and Voigtländer 2019:106). Besides the lack of sufficient internet supply in rural areas, the exceptional state due to Corona endorses the long-standing critique of German schools’ need to expand their digital facilities (Hüther et al. 2019:106; Kerres 2020:1). As socially disadvantaged urban areas (Brennpunktbezirke) are disproportionately affected by high Corona incidences, children here also face longer and more frequent school closures, aggravating their dependency on these precarious digital resources (Plümper and Neumayer 2020:1179–80).

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At the same time, increasing reports about Long Covid-19 in children have cast doubts about the safety of re-opening schools and sports facilities, adding to the debate about the proportionality of the measures (Buonsenso et al. 2021:2210; Ludvigsson 2021:6–7). It has further been argued that, while the isolated effect of measures is difficult to estimate, school closures as part of the pandemic measures contribute significantly to reduce the virus’ spread (Anastassopoulou, Spanakis, and Tsakris 2020:1203). After initially prioritising schools to be open, in the second wave in spring 2020, the German government thus chose a strategy of longer closures compared to other European countries (Blume et al. 2021).

As parents, teachers, and health professionals are torn between worries about children’s health and the burden of the measures, the public debate in Germany involves emotional

argumentations (Bayrischer Rundfunk 2021). However, while an increasing number of studies address adults’ perspectives, children’s stances are barely part of the debate around the Corona measures, and their perspectives as social actors remain underrepresented in the literature (Idoiaga et al. 2020:2). Yet, understanding children’s concepts of disease and their perception of risk is crucial in order to develop health education programs and foster children’s protective practices, as has previously been shown in other health-related contexts (Mouratidi, Bonoti, and Leondari 2016:444; Onyango-Ouma 2004:336). Besides promoting children’s self-protective behaviour, health education also serves to propel children’s role in mitigating the pandemic, as by caring for themselves, they can protect others (Andresen et al. 2021:10–11; Spray and Hunleth 2020:50). Finally, the correlation between higher levels of risk perception, negative emotions, and impaired mental health like Han and colleagues (2021:252) demonstrate among adults features the importance of understanding the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health. In contexts where children face higher incidences and greater risks of contracting Corona, these entanglements become particularly exigent.

By exploring how elementary school children in socially disadvantaged urban areas in Germany perceive and navigate the pandemic everyday risks, this research aims to include their stances into the discourse. To this end, I employed qualitative research methods such as semi-structured online interviews, photovoice, and participant observation. Researching children from two

schools enabled me to compare their ideas and tactics. These insights into their interpretation and management of the situation do only contribute to the field of children’s risk navigation in a global health crisis but also facilitate a much-needed dialogue with children, bringing challenges and opportunities during a pandemic in a digital age to the fore and illuminating ways of moderating these (Andresen et al. 2021:12–13).

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7 1.2 Literature Review

The ongoing debate around the proportionality of the measures primarily draws on adults’

argumentations about the implications of the Corona measures on various aspects of children’s lives. Similarly, the social science literature focuses on how children’s lives are impacted by changes in education, family life, and encounters with peers, highlighting the effects on children’s mental health. While children’s voices are mostly missing from the body of literature, the findings illustrate the various layers of children’s adjustments to the pandemic.

Impact on families with children

Since kindergartens and schools first closed, parents in many countries have to combine a changed work schedule with caring for their younger children (Spinelli et al. 2020:2). Along with financial constraints due to reduced working hours, the combination of home-office and home- schooling constitutes a challenge for numerous families, elevating intra-familiar tensions and feelings of distress among all family members during lockdown (Mohler-Kuo et al. 2021:11–14;

Spinelli et al. 2020:10–12). Furthermore, parents report comparatively higher feelings of loneliness than their childless counterparts (Buecker et al. 2020:3). As parental distress and children’s emotional wellbeing are inversely correlated, the generally elevated stress levels during the pandemic negatively affect children’s emotional coping (Di Giorgio et al. 2020:10; Russell et al. 2020:678–79; Shorer and Leibovich 2020:7). Above all, this tension puts children at particular risk of domestic violence (Chung, Lanier, and Wong 2020:9; Jentsch and Schnock 2020:2–3;

Krishnadas and Taha 2020:46). With schools being closed, institutions of external surveillance are inaccessible, leaving these children in precarious situations and at increased risk of maltreatment (Katz et al. 2021:12; Samboma 2020:808; Wilke, Howard, and Pop 2020:5).

Impact on socially disadvantaged families

While social disruptions affect all families during lockdowns, socially disadvantaged families face particular challenges, leading to significant disruptions in the children’s rearing (Gornik et al.

2020:152–55; Lanari et al. 2020:6–12). Being disproportionately impacted by job loss and a shift to short-time work, low-income families are especially vulnerable to the lockdowns’ social and economic consequences (Prime, Wade, and Browne 2020:636). Since schools, playgrounds, and sports facilities closed, children living in socially disadvantaged areas are suddenly confined to small and crowded apartments, adding to intra-familiar tensions (Lanari et al. 2020:5).

Furthermore, as social distancing is more challenging in crowded housing situations, during the

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third wave, socially disadvantaged urban areas had disproportionately high Corona incidences (Plümper and Neumayer 2020:179–80; Wilke et al. 2020:2). The subsequently frequent and long school closures pose particular difficulties on these children due to a lack of digital resources to participate in online education (Lanari et al. 2020:9).

Challenges in education

Impacts on education and socialisation are thus issues of concern, particularly regarding children in socially disadvantaged contexts (Müller and Goldenberg 2020:13). Despite all efforts to provide continuing education through online teaching, its feasibility depends on the school’s digital infrastructure and the families’ resources, which vary significantly throughout Germany (Hüther et al. 2019:106). While some teachers view online education as an opportunity for improvements in the educational system, others admonish further marginalisation of less privileged children (Bubb and Jones 2020:218; Cherubini 2020:3). Pre-pandemic findings on increased learning loss in children from socially disadvantaged households during the summer break hint at the pre-existing difficulties for this group to follow the classroom content (Burkam et al. 2004:22). Besides schools as educational places, qualitative studies involving teachers’ and children’s perspectives illustrate their importance as spaces of social encounters and identity formation, particularly for migrant children (Cameron and Tenenbaum 2021:231; Primdahl et al.

2020:8). Here, “peers and school become important socialisation agents (Popyk and Pustułka 2019) and anchors in a host country” (Popyk 2020:11). In other words, for newly arrived migrant children, the combination of language acquisition and social care becomes even more challenging when contact with the students only occurs through often limited digital facilities during school closures (Gornik et al. 2020:154; Neece et al. 2020:740–42; Popyk 2020:8).

Impact on children’s well-being

Children’s mental wellbeing is another crucial concern in the debate around the Corona measures (Ravens-Sieberer et al. 2021:7). During the pandemic, mental health disorders such as non- suicidal self-injury have aggravated significantly among children (Plener 2021:195). Furthermore, impaired sleep, higher levels of anxiety, and feelings of isolation have increased among children without pre-existing mental health concerns (Baird et al. 2020:108; Luijten et al. 2021:7; Usher, Bhullar, and Jackson 2020:2756). Again, already challenging living conditions correlate with a higher risk of increased mental burden, such as multiple siblings or unemployed parents (Baird et al. 2020:110–11; Luijten et al. 2021:7). As children cannot perform hobbies such as sports

training or music lessons, they also miss out on social interactions and recreational activities,

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while contact restrictions and closure of public spaces like playgrounds make meeting friends outside equally difficult (Andresen et al. 2021:28–40). Furthermore, the lack of physical activity resulting from less time spent outdoors with peers further potentiates children’s risk for mental health problems (Duan et al. 2020:115; Kılınçel et al. 2020:4; Liu, Liu, and Liu 2020:3; Mittal, Firth, and Kimhy 2020:1197). Finally, the general pandemic situation raises a sense of alarm, influencing children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing (Idoiaga Mondragon et al. 2021:187;

Nearchou et al. 2020:13), with children aged 6-12 years being more severely impacted by mental health problems than their younger counterparts (Fitzpatrick, Carson, and Weisz 2020:1;

Provenzi et al. 2020:2). Since, from a psychodynamic point of view, childhood wellbeing is key to children’s psychological development (Schmid 2013:260–77), Graber and colleagues (2021:8) admonish for profound research on this topic in order to identify strategies to prevent detrimental developments. Other professionals involved in childcare emphasise that “it is essential that children understand what is happening in order to mitigate the damage that this situation may cause them” (Idoiaga et al. 2020:2).

In conclusion, the existing literature outlines tremendous changes in various scopes of children’s lives during the pandemic. At the same time, their perceptions of risk and modes of navigating their own interests remain underrepresented in the literature. In light of the multiple ways children’s lives are affected by Corona, incorporating their views into the debate is essential “in order to develop strategies and tools that, by taking into account their concerns, will ultimately help them to overcome these unprecedented circumstances” (Idoiaga et al. 2020:3).

1.3 Context

To study children’s perspectives and navigation, I chose two elementary schools in Stade and Berlin-Neukölln, Germany. The schools’ locations feature the study’s aim of focusing on children in socially disadvantaged urban areas.

Stade

Stade is a city of approximately 50,000 inhabitants in Northern Germany, located in the lower regions of river Elbe. With 13% inhabitants with a migration background (Migrationshintergrund), the numbers are slightly above the German average, while the number of welfare recipients is at 15% comparatively high (Landesamt für Statistik Niedersachsen 2020).

The school is located in a socially disadvantaged district (Brennpunktbezirk), characterised by disproportionately high rates of both welfare recipients and families with a history of migration.

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At the school, over 85% of the students have a different mother tongue than German, many of whom have special needs in language education. While the scarcity of nearby kindergarten places before the pandemic already implicated a lack of access to early language interventions

(Sprachfrühförderung), Corona-related closures further restricted access to language education in kindergartens and elementary schools, leading to even higher numbers of children with limited German language skills. This situation was aggravated as Brennpunktbezirke in Germany had exceptionally high Corona incidences during the second and third waves, leading to longer school and kindergarten closures in these districts (Dammann 2021; Plümper and Neumayer 2020:179–

80).

Berlin-Neukölln

Berlin-Neukölln is a diverse and particularly young district of the German capital with a long history of migrant settlement (Tize and Reis 2019:125). As of 2019, 46,5% of the inhabitants were categorised as residents with a migration background, with the percentage of children in this category of up to 70% (Bezirksamt Neukölln 2016:12). Furthermore, the district has the lowest average education and highest dependency on welfare subsidies among all districts of Berlin (Bezirksamt Neukölln 2016:26). At the same time, since the closure of Tempelhof airport in 2008 and the resulting improvement in living quality despite comparatively low rents, Neukölln

increasingly attracts students and young middle-class families (Tize and Reis 2019:126).

The school is located in northern Neukölln, where the social conditions are the most precarious (Bezirksamt Neukölln 2016:31–34; Tize and Reis 2019:125). At the elementary school, the increasing gentrification is represented in the body of students, with growing numbers of native- German speakers (Tize and Reis 2019:126). Despite the continued gentrification, the overall housing situation here remains precarious (Bezirksamt Neukölln 2016:19). Correspondingly, by late 2020, Corona incidences in Neukölln were among the highest in Germany (Kelishadi 2020).

Subsequently, school closures forced children into homeschooling and hybrid teaching, fostering the inequalities between the children’s opportunities to continue their education (Warnke 2021).

2 Chapter 2: Research questions and conceptual framework

This chapter closes in on the research questions and delineates the underlying conceptual

inspirations of my research, which employ the concepts of social navigation (Vigh 2009:420) and the emotion-risk-assemblage (Lupton 2013b:640) in a combined framework. Social navigation

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allows me to analyse how children navigate within an ever-changing environment involving various external forces such as pandemic risks and the Corona measures (Vigh 2009:420). Further, the concept recognises children as social actors, thereby allowing me to discern their navigational tactics as acts of agency (Vigh 2009:428). To understand what motivates children’s navigation, Lupton’s (2013b:640) emotion-risk-assemblage offers a helpful complementary approach that understands both risk and emotion as embodied, dynamic entities that are shaped by each other and interactions with humans, objects, and space. The concept thus allows me to explore how children’s risk assessment is informed by individual and social factors, such as information they gather on the disease and interactions with their parents, peers or exposure to new materials like masks and Corona tests. The assumption of both emotion and risk being in constant flux

resembles the dynamic character of the environment that social navigation assumes (Lupton 2013b:640; Vigh 2009:420). Through this combined framework, I aim to explore how children perceive and navigate risks in the constantly shifting environment of the Corona pandemic, shedding light on the interplay between the structure determined by the Corona measures and the children’s agency.

2.1 Research questions

The following research questions and sub-questions allow me to zoom in on how children’s risk perceptions and emotions propel their navigational tactics during the pandemic’s insecurities and within the framework of the pandemic measures:

1. How do children understand Corona and the related measures?

a. How do they explain the Corona measures?

b. What ideas do children express about Corona and its transmission?

c. How do their explanations of the measures relate to their ideas about Corona and their perceptions of risk?

2. How are these ideas connected to children’s practices?

a. How do the children realise or defy the Corona measures?

b. How do their practices expose them to risk? Conversely, how do they not expose them to risk?

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c. How do their perceptions of risk shape their interactions with others, materials, and space?

3. How do their understandings and practices concerning the measures relate?

Conversely, how do they not relate?

2.2 Social navigation

The context of the Corona pandemic can be understood as a situation of “social volatility and opacity” (Vigh 2009:419), which, according to Vigh, renders social navigation particularly visible.

Indeed, social navigation differs from other practice-oriented approaches in its assumption of an unstable environment that is itself subject to constant change (Vigh 2009:420). Along these lines, actors’ navigation is understood as “motion within motion” (Vigh 2009:420). In the pandemic context, this view helps to grasp how the pandemic uncertainties such as shifting Corona incidences and constantly revised measures require children to continuously adjust their navigation tactics regarding social encounters and everyday activities.

While these adjustments of their practices help them navigate their immediate future, the changing environment also shifts the actors’ positions (Vigh 2009:425). As this shift may influence which goals actors perceive as achievable in the distant future, the necessary adjustments involve integrating knowledge of the past into predictions of the future (Vigh

2009:420). An ongoing lockdown may, for instance, diminish their willingness to comply with the rules if a return to normal peer interactions is out of sight, whereas high Corona incidences among close family members may have the opposite effect.

When looking at the Corona measures, social navigation reveals how children manage shifts in their social worlds under the influence of multiple external forces (Vigh 2009:419). The concept helps analyse how children navigate the constant adjustments to rules such as social distancing or face masks and their perceptions of risk and safety. For example, while it can be imagined that the measures may sometimes be debilitating when playing with friends, children may also be attentive to following the rules to protect themselves and their families. Here, social navigation helps disentangle the tension between contradicting interests. In brief, this approach does not merely help analyse children’s unique ways of navigating under the radar of controlling instances like teachers and parents; regarding children as social actors, the framework unveils how children manage the friction that occurs when expectations from different parties occur contradict each other.

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Solving these conflicts of interest involves the interplay of structure and agency, as the concept of social navigation helps to see (Vigh 2009:428). Children’s positioning in society is habitually characterised by adults’ assumptions of their incompetence, and thus a power imbalance to children’s disadvantage (James 2007:266). De Certeau (2013:37) elaborates on the implications of such imbalances for actors’ social navigation, distinguishing between navigational tactics and strategies, where “strategy is the process of demarcating and constituting space and tactics the process of navigating it” (Vigh 2009:424). In other words, navigation by those in positions of power involves strategic planning, while those subjected to this power – such as children - employ tactics to reach their targeted future goal (Tize and Reis 2019:123). By asking how social actors “disentangle themselves from confining structures, plot their escape and move towards better positions” (Vigh 2009:419), social navigation helps to analyse the interaction of children’s tactics and external forces, accounting for their agency influenced but not entirely restricted by structures.

2.3 Emotion-risk-assemblage

Lupton’s (2013b:640) emotion-risk-assemblage can help understand what motivates children’s navigation tactics in the context of the pandemic. Lupton (2013b:641) argues that risk and emotion are socially constructed and mutually shape one another. While partly drawing on Douglas’ (1992:13) claim that the social and political relations of a group are reflected in their prioritisation of certain risks, Lupton additionally emphasises that individual predispositions influence the identification of risks:

What phenomena should be called ‘risks’ are influenced by the social and cultural context and by personal experience (Lupton 2013b:638).

By claiming the socially constructed nature of emotion and risk, Lupton’s (2013b:638) concept renders visible how parents’, teachers’, or peers’ views impact children’s risk perceptions. In turn, it helps unveil how interactions with contagious or non-contagious others shape and shift their definition of risk.

Lupton (2013b:635) elaborates on this individualistic stance on risk by borrowing from the affect heuristic concept (Slovic et al. 2007:1347). Claiming that the “rational and the experiential

systems operate in parallel, and each seems to depend on the other for guidance” (Slovic et al.

2004:311), Slovic argues beyond a dichotomy of rational and emotional judgements. In this context, emotions are understood as socially shaped expressions and means of communicating

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internal, private sentiments like affect and feeling (Slovic et al. 2004:312–14). In other words, emotions allow individuals to share their affective experiences with others. Lupton’s (2013b:640) emotion-risk-assemblage picks up on this communicable character of emotions by arguing that risk, too, is not merely an individual construct but, like emotion, collectively shared. Put differently, the construction of risk depends on the cultural and social context as well as on personal experiences, “including the embodied sensations that are defined as ‘emotions’” (Lupton 2013b:638, original emphasis). In the context of this study, this assumption will help answer how children’s risk perceptions are configured by their parents’ worries, their peers’ insouciance, or the sense of alarm circulated in the media.

Drawing on Merleau-Ponty (1962), Lupton (2013b:639) further claims that, since we experience the world through our bodies, emotions are embodied, too. Moreover, she argues that “we are constantly relating to and responding to other bodies, so our embodiment is never individual”

(Lupton 2013b:639). When studying how children deal with physical distancing, this perspective emphasises that avoiding other, potentially risky bodies may evoke various emotions ranging from sadness about the lack of human touch to fear when a risky body comes too close. Here, the role of space renders visible the entanglements between children’s emotional perception of the pandemic situation and their construction of risk (Davidson and Milligan 2004:524; Lupton 2013b:639). Lupton’s (2013b:639) concept draws on Douglas’ (1966:161) claim that boundaries of both the body and the social group are decisive in the identification of risk (Alaszewski 2015:216). While sin, taboo, or blame, serve to protect these boundaries, crossing them requires symbolic rituals involving practices and materials (Alaszewski 2015:216; Douglas 1966:161). In the context of the pandemic, the significance of rituals may become immanent in situations of conflicting interests or ambivalent risk assessments. Here, this approach will help to answer how interactions with materials, such as face masks, shape the children’s embodied perception of the world and, in turn, how these interactions impact their emotions and risk perceptions (Lupton 2013b:640). For instance, this approach accounts for the context-bound character of rule adherence or defiance, depending, for example, on whom the children perceive to be at risk.

Thus, this lens may unveil protective roles of rituals like wearing masks or taking tests. Moreover, it may bring to light in how far the meaning of these rituals is context-bound and reflects the group relations. In other words, the concept of emotion-risk-assemblage (Lupton 2013b:640) helps to understand “how objects, bodies, space, and place become imbued with heightened emotional and ritual significance and the consequences of this” (Brown 2020:8).

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15 2.4 Navigating risks in times of change

Notably, both assessing and navigating risk require integrating past experiences into future predictions of a looming situation (Slovic et al. 2004:314). Slovic’s (2007:1347) affect heuristic concept of risk assumes past experiences to be a pre-requisite for the construction of risk.

Arguably, the participating children will have limited experiences with health crises. This

incongruence of past experience and anticipated future danger creates tension, alluding to Slovic’s (2007:1347) argument that the affect heuristic proves a successful strategy in situations where we can draw on past experiences to estimate the future while in unfamiliar situations, the concept is fallible. The pandemic poses such an unprecedented situation, where not only children but everyone draws on past experiences to predict future risks. However, for the lack of equivalent empirical knowledge, these predictions are imprecise, and thus, require constant adjustments in risk assessment like the constantly changing Corona measures illustrate. In line with this, Tulloch and Lupton (2003:1) claim that “risk knowledges are constantly contested and are subject to disputes and debates over their nature, their control and whom … to blame for their creation.”

These constant adjustments others make in terms of the Corona measures may, in turn, influence the children’s risk perceptions. Correspondingly, these frequent shifts have direct implications on children’s everyday lives, requiring them to adjusts their assessments of the situation and their practices. Social navigation helps to explore these practical adjustments within an environment of shifting pandemic risks. While not explicitly elaborating on risk, Vigh (2009:420) argues that the actors’ attempt to reach a specific future goal requires that they navigate through the ever- changing immediate future. This conceptualisation of children’s navigation renders visible how they adjust not only their perception but also their practices to the constantly changing measures in the pandemic world, how their decisions to meet peers may be influenced by official

regulations, but also their parents’ shifting opinions on safe behaviour or Corona cases among people they know. In other words, this combined framework allows understanding if and how children’s practices and their understandings of Corona relate, providing a novel perspective on children’s navigation during the pandemic and the entanglements of risk, structure, and agency.

3 Chapter 3: Research methodology

The presented study employed various qualitative research methods to facilitate a participatory approach involving children as co-researchers (Alderson 2008:278). Along with the involvement of two different groups of children, different methods allowed for triangulation of the findings.

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However, the restrictions by the school authorities and the Corona measures required careful navigation of how I was able to achieve rigorous results. While the educational boards prohibited me from obtaining information such as the children’s age, and the pandemic restrictions on travelling and entering the school building challenged my access, I also had to consider my own risks of contagion during the limited opportunities of real-life encounters. Finally, when the school in Stade closed in April, I had to develop alternative ways to conduct the interviews despite the families’ scarce resources. In other words, I, like my informants, found myself constantly navigating between external restrictions, pandemic risks, and my interests as a researcher.

3.1 Location and recruitment

The study draws on ten weeks of ethnographic fieldwork involving 20 primary school children between 9 and 12 years at two schools in two different German cities. The schools were chosen based on their location in socially disadvantaged urban areas and accessibility through my supervisor’s (Berlin- Neukölln) and my own network (Stade). Due to the extensive bureaucratic requirements, it was initially uncertain with which school I would be able to collaborate; thus, I sought permission for both schools to increase the chances of gaining access to a fieldwork site.

When I was permitted to conduct research at both schools, this offered the unique opportunity to compare two groups of children from similar environments of socially disadvantaged urban areas, yet of different individual backgrounds, which I will describe in the following section.

In Stade, one of the involved teachers, Ben, is a friend who introduced me to his headteacher.

During the fieldwork, Ben continued to function as a mediator between parents, students, and me. Together with his colleagues, he recruited the participants for my research based on

voluntariness. To account for the school’s diversity in the sample, Ben additionally asked specific children if they wanted to participate, such as children who might not have dared to volunteer due to language barriers. In line with the composition of the school’s body of students, most participants in Stade were no native German speakers and came from households with limited digital resources. The importance of including these children in the project became especially pronounced when, midway through the fieldwork, schools in Stade closed. Exposing these children’s invisibility during school closures, at first, it seemed impossible to reach them for the second round of interviews. It took time and diligent navigation, but thanks to committed gatekeepers such as Ben, I was able to complete interviews.

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The recruitment process in Berlin-Neukölln was based purely on the children’s and their family’s initiative after the teachers presented the project to them. According to the teachers, families with a challenging background did not volunteer to participate since they were already overwhelmed by the pandemic situation and difficult to reach through online communication. As a result, the sample here primarily represented high-achieving students from middle-class families without language barriers and sufficient digital resources. While the invisibility of disadvantaged children at this school highlighted the importance of including their views, I depended on the teachers’

support in recruiting the participants as data protection prohibited me from reaching out to the families myself, while pandemic restrictions prevented me from visiting the school and engage in coincidental conversations with children from different backgrounds.

3.2 Online interviews

Semi-structured online interviews were a key tool in learning about the children’s explicit ideas of Corona and its implications, revealing how their navigation strategies were motivated (Green and Thorogood 2018:115). Depending on the participants’ attention span, the sessions lasted between 20 and 30 minutes. Instead of one long conversation, two separate interviews allowed me to understand the children’s shifting experiences and uncertainties related to the pandemic. While the first interview served to build trust between the children and me, more sensitive topics such as fears and risk perception were addressed during the second interview (Christensen 2004:168).

Nevertheless, exclusively digital contact may have complicated the building of trust. Therefore, I invited the children to bring a third person to their first interview, such as a trusted teacher or parent. In most cases, the children did not bring this person to their second interview.

In Stade, the first round of interviews was conducted at school due to most families’ lack of digital resources. For the duration of the interview, the children were exempt from class. To grant the participants both privacy and security, the interviews took place in a separate room next to their classroom, where a teacher was always available. The children demonstrated that they felt comfortable navigating issues of concern, for instance, when requiring a bathroom break from me or indicating to the teacher that he was interrupting a private conversation. When the school closed in April, the educational board equipped all children with tablet PCs for teaching

purposes, which also enabled the children to join the second round of interviews from home.

In Berlin-Neukölln, both interview rounds were conducted through the families’ own digital devices. With most of the participants, a parent was present during the first interview.

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Furthermore, in two cases, the participants’ siblings aged between 9 and 12 years joined the interview.

Notably, the differences in the interview settings may have influenced the children’s comfort in speaking about sensitive topics. Naturally, I made all efforts to ensure that the children were at ease with the interview space by asking them at the beginning of each interview and at any given time when I had the impression they might not. Interestingly, during the interviews at school, most children seemed to be equally comfortable as those joining from home. In fact, children who joined the online interview from home had less privacy as parents or siblings would interrupt the interview, and the children sometimes seemed more distracted. While this

distraction may have influenced the depth of the findings, I accepted the risk of possibly limited insights, given that this was the only chance to reach this group of children during school closures.

3.3 Participant observation

Despite the limited options to include observational methods due to the Corona restrictions, I was able to conduct three days of participant observation in Stade. When the case numbers were still low at the beginning of the fieldwork period, I was able to visit the school for one day, where I observed the children’s routines and navigation of the pandemic restrictions. In April, the same school organised two days of self-testing instructions asking me to assist with organisational tasks, which simultaneously allowed me to conduct further participant observation. In Berlin, the restrictions, as per Berliner Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Familie prohibited me from engaging in real-life encounters at the school entirely. While I was hoping to be present at both schools for further observations later in the fieldwork period, rising Corona incidences and subsequent lockdowns prevented me from extensive participant observation. Nevertheless, the observational opportunities in Stade granted me valuable insights into children’s practices related to Corona and helped me to put the children’s oral accounts into context (Green and Thorogood 2018:173).

3.4 Photovoice

By placing cameras in the participants’ hands and using them to guide the interview, the photovoice method enabled the children to communicate their insider knowledge by taking photos of their everyday lives while respecting their agency in deciding what topics they wanted

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to talk about (Sarti et al. 2018:398–403; Wang and Burris 1997:369). The method was intended to bridge the explicit and implicit aspects of children’s understanding of Corona and the measures, allowing them to express themselves through other means than words and enabling me to virtually accompany them through their daily experiences (Green and Thorogood 2018:140).

Given the different resources of the participants’ families but also the financial restrictions of my research, I purchased disposable cameras for the children in Stade, while the participants in Berlin agreed to use their own digital cameras or smartphones. However, the school closures in Stade prevented the children here from participating; thus, only the participants in Berlin took photos, which we discussed during the second interview.

The results generated through the photovoice method in Berlin reconfirmed the interviews’

findings while not adding any information. Per Berliner Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Familie, I was not permitted to publish any of the footage in this thesis. Therefore, the data is not discussed further in the remaining chapters.

3.5 Analysis and writing

To analyse the data, I employed an abductive approach, which “rests on the cultivation of anomalous and surprising empirical findings against a background of multiple existing

sociological theories and through systematic methodological analysis” (Timmermans and Tavory 2012:169). In other words, the codes and themes emerged from the interview data, considering the theoretical framework that I defined beforehand as well as other theoretical concepts I familiarised myself with. Coding was conducted shortly after each interview, and the resulting themes were integrated into the topic guides for the second round of interviews. Using the previously formulated interview questions as a framework, I grouped the identified codes in themes and sub-themes, using an excel spreadsheet to summarise each participant’s statements.

The themes that emerged this way included Corona knowledge, risk assessment, and navigation tactics.

Sub-themes included knowledge about the virus, knowledge about transmission, knowledge about the measures, bodies at risk, symptoms, implementation of rules, temporal argumentation, uncertainties, trust, magical thinking, dilemmas of interest, and positive aspects.

As no new themes regarding the children’s disease explanatory model and risk assessment emerged in the last rounds of interviews, data saturation was reached for these topics. For the theme of social navigation, the exclusively oral and online account of children’s navigation tactics stands in the way of full data saturation.

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From the identified themes and sub-themes, I derived the structure of this thesis. In the first results chapter, I will focus on children’s understandings of Corona as a basis for their navigation strategies. In the second results chapter, I will present their risk assessment with regard to Corona, revealing entanglements with their understanding of the pandemic. In the final results chapter, I will elaborate on children’s navigation of risks concerning contagion, involving their

understandings from the previous chapters and their practices.

The writing process of this thesis involved translating the children’s quotes from German to English, which required careful attention to issues of representation. On the one hand, children have a language of their own, in which the meaning of words may be idiosyncratic and difficult to understand for an outsider, let alone be translated (Vogl 2015:24). On the other hand, several of the children did not have German as their mother tongue, which sometimes implicated

grammatical specificities that were difficult to translate without stigmatising the participant or changing the meaning of their statements. To ensure that the children’s unique ways of expressing their ideas are reflected in the written thesis, I have embedded some quotes in

explanations of the context. For the same reason, I used the term Corona (instead of SARS-CoV-2 or Covid-19) throughout this thesis, as this is the term the children used in their responses.

3.6 Operationalisation of research questions

To summarise the operationalisation of the research questions, Table 1 gives an overview of the main research and sub-questions, along with their operationalisation (methods and indicators) and the key concepts used for their analysis.

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Research question Sub-questions Methods Indicators Key concepts 1. How do

children understand Corona and the related measures?

a. How do they explain the Corona measures?

Semi- structured online interviews

Children’s explanation of Corona rules

Social navigation:

knowledge motivating children’s navigation b. What ideas do

they express about Corona and its transmission?

Semi- structured online interviews

Vocabulary and concepts children use to explain Corona

Social navigation:

knowledge motivating children’s navigation c. How do their

explanations of the measures relate to their ideas about Corona and their perceptions of risk?

Semi- structured online interviews

Children’s assessment of Corona risks; their rationale for the measures

Social navigation and emotion-risk-

assemblage:

knowledge shaping risk perception and motivating navigation 2. How are these

ideas connected to children’s

practices?

a. How do the children realise or defy the Corona measures?

Semi- structured online interviews Participant observation

Children’s narration of rule adherence or defiance

Children’s

implementation of the measures

Social navigation:

interplay of agency and confining structures in a shifting environment b. How do their

practices expose them to risk?

Conversely, how do they not expose them to risk?

Semi- structured online interviews Participant observation

Risks of contagion in children’s narration and observation

Social navigation:

interplay of agency and confining structures in a shifting environment c. How do their

perceptions of risk shape their interactions with others, materials, and space?

Semi- structured online interviews Photovoice Participant observation

Children's interactions with others and materials (i.e., masks, hand sanitiser) Connections children draw between practices and risk

Emotion-risk- assemblage: risk shaped by interactions with others, materials, and space

3. How do children’s understandings and practices concerning the measures relate?

Conversely, how do they not relate?

Semi- structured online interviews Photovoice Participant observation

Connections between risk, disease

understanding, and practices in interviews, photos, and observation

Social navigation and emotion-risk-

assemblage:

knowledge shaping risk perception and navigation in a shifting

environment

Table 1: Research questions, operationalisation, and key concepts of social navigation (Vigh 2009) and emotion-risk-assemblage (Lupton 2013b).

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The following ethical considerations are based on the ethical guidelines proposed by the

Graduate School of Social Sciences of the University of Amsterdam (2019/2020) and the ethical standards of the American Association of Anthropology (2012). Consent by the University of Amsterdam Ethics Committee of the Master in Medical Anthropology and Sociology, the Berliner

Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Familie and the Regionales Landesamt für Schule und Bildung Lüneburg was obtained prior to the research.

Informed consent

As research with minors requires careful warranting of the participants’ protection, children were included in the research only after double consent was granted by both their legal guardians and themselves (Alderson 2012:178; Green and Thorogood 2018:90). Before their involvement in the research, all participants received separate information forms in adjusted language for children, parents, or teachers (see Appendix). In an online conversation before the first interview, I allowed all participants and their guardians time to ask questions and reconsider their

participation. In addition, the parents signed written consent forms as required by the educational boards, which the teachers obtained, and which were archived in the school until the end of the school year (31.07.2021).

Naturally, I emphasised that all participants could withdraw their consent at any point of time during the research up to one month after the end of the fieldwork period. While I cannot rule out that children may have felt pressured to participate by their parents or the school, I made all efforts to counter this possibility by reiterating that withdrawal from the study has no negative consequences for the children or any other participant (Green and Thorogood 2018:90).

Anonymity and confidentiality

To anonymise all identifiable data in this study, I removed personal data such as names, places, and other identifying information from the transcripts (Green and Thorogood 2018:91). During notetaking and in the written thesis, I replaced the participants’ names with pseudonyms that I chose from the respective language family that the original names were from. When changing the names did not seem sufficient to conceal the participant’s identity, I switched their identifying characteristics in the written report. As some participating children and families know each other,

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they may nevertheless recognise certain information and hence the informant. I discussed this risk with all participants prior to the research.

The digital nature of the interviews raises safety concerns that I discussed with the participants.

Online interviews in Berlin were conducted through Zoom. Besides its reported user-friendliness, the program offers real-time recording of video calls that can be stored directly on a private hard drive (Archibald et al. 2019:4). Interviews in Stade were conducted via the school’s educational platform IServ. All interviews were recorded with Microsoft OBS Studio.

After completing the transcription, I removed all non-anonymised data from my personal devices, storing them on a password secured, end-to-end encrypted hard drive until 31.07.2021, as per Berliner Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Familie. Any information that participants disclosed under the condition of confidentiality was not published. No footage compiled by the children was included. Clear principles of what children were allowed to photograph were established with them per General Data Protection Regulation (Radley-Gardner, Beale, and Zimmermann 2016:10).

3.8 Positionality

My positionality is another essential point of consideration. Working with children, parents, and teachers professionally as a medical doctor in different contexts shaped my approach towards the participants. While my experiences as a junior doctor in paediatrics and child psychiatry have acquainted me with children’s particular ways of expressing themselves, as a clinician, I was in the position to give advice, assuming that I know what is best for my patients. In the context of participatory research, I must be aware of my different role as the researcher interviewing the experts rather than being the one whose advice is needed.

While I was not employed at either school, I was introduced to the children through teachers, possibly suggesting my affiliation with the school. Moreover, one involved teacher is a friend of mine, whose attitude towards the children may have influenced my perception. To clarify that my research was unrelated to school achievements, I explained my different position to all

participants. Moreover, I asked the children to address me by my first name and the informal you (du) to highlight the difference between the teachers and me.

As an adult researcher, I am an outsider to the children’s world. At the same time, having once been a child may have posed the risk of assuming similarities between the children’s experiences and my own, subsequently projecting my own memories. While Christensen (2004:173) warns

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against the temptation to try “pass[ing] as a child”, the adult researcher may also be perceived as an authoritative figure, especially when associated with the school. While I do not have children of my own, my experiences as an aunt to children of a similar age as the participants may have helped follow Christensen’s (2004:174) recommendation to be a “different sort of adult, one who, whilst not pretending to be a child, seeks throughout to respect their views and wishes.”

Finally, with a diverse composition of child participants, my position as a white woman from northern Germany influences my perspective and places me in a privileged position. Having grown up in a similar region might have enabled me to understand some aspects of their situation better. While a shared background might involve the danger of premature assumptions about supposedly shared experiences, I may in turn not have perceived all nuances of lived experiences of migrant children growing up in a socially disadvantaged urban area.

4 Chapter 4: Children’s Corona knowledge

In this chapter, I will discuss how the children combined scientific language, biomedical models of disease, and magical elements in their own intuitive theory of Corona. While I will touch upon the participants’ ideas about contagion and symptoms, I will elaborate on their perceptions in the context of risk assessment in Chapter 4.

4.1 At school

When Ben and I arrived at the school, dispersed groups of six to eight children were already waiting in front of different doors on the sides of the school building. Most of them were wearing face masks. We left our jackets in the teachers’ wardrobe and wandered through the one-way system in the school building to the door where my friends’ students were waiting. He opened the door, and one by one, the seven children entered the building. They took off their shoes, picked them up, and then hurried up the stairs. In the hallway upstairs, they found an array of chairs that stood two metres apart in front of the wardrobe and had the children’s names on them. The children found their designated chair, took off their jacket, hung it on the hook behind the chair, placed their shoes underneath it, and sat down. Once Ben had let all children inside the building, he joined us upstairs and entered the classroom. After having washed his hands, he called the first student to enter the classroom. Upon entering, the first student washed her hands, too, went to her seat, and, with a sigh of relief, took off her mask, which she

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stored on a small hook underneath her desk. One by one, the other students followed her example.

(Fieldnotes, 02.03.2021)

Throughout my observational days in the school in Stade, Covid-19 – Corona, as most children called it – had an ambiguous role, almost an absent presence (Mol 2010:263). On the one hand, the entire school day was structured around the pandemic. Classes were split in half, and each group had alternately 2 or 3 days of school each week. On their days in school, the children had to follow a delicate set of rules, like the observational notes above illustrate. On the other hand, all this went almost without mentioning. While the presence of the pandemic shaped their lives in ways, they noticed and associated with various emotional responses, Corona itself was rarely explicitly addressed.

At the same time, throughout the online interviews that took place in the weeks following my first observational day at the school, the participants gave detailed explanations of the pandemic, employing a combination of scientific concepts derived from the media and intuitive conclusions, which I will elaborate on in the following sections of this chapter.

4.2 About the virus

Explaining the virus

Most of the children I interviewed employed scientific vocabulary and biological concepts to explain Corona to me, often containing words like symptoms or contagion. Many explicitly defined Corona as a virus, and almost all children captured the idea of a tiny entity having a large-scale impact on someone’s health. While some children simply concluded that “it's a virus.… It makes people sick” (Lisa, Stade), others filled the term with detailed explanations of its qualities:

Corona is a virus that doesn't infect young people as much …, they don't get as sick as older people, for example. And now there are also mutants, Corona mutants, which- there is also one that is worse for children. And Corona is- can transmit a disease called Covid-19. And … there was already a Corona virus, and- and that was called SARS-CoV- 1, and it is now SARS-CoV-2 (Lukas, Berlin).

Many participants emphasised the visual features of the virus as an essential aspect. Several descriptions resembled its depiction in the German popular media, where the light green sphere barbed with red spike proteins often appears as the symbol of the pandemic:

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Corona are little things; I saw them on TV. And they have spikes or something (Elif, Stade).

While for many children, the shape was merely another way of describing it, others implied a functional relevance of its looks by hinting at its ability to adhere to surfaces with its “suction pads” (Bela, Berlin) or drawing a connection between the shape and its name: “Corona means a crown because the virus has spikes like a crown” (Paula, Berlin).

Although not explicitly being asked about it, some children mentioned theories about how Corona might have developed. Again, most ideas reflected theories circulated in the popular media. Here the children mentioned its relation to bats, hygiene, and its first discovery in China:

Corona is a virus that goes all around the world.… it was found for the first time in China; most of the people in the USA have died, most of the sick people, it’s over a million; and you can't fly to Denmark or so anymore (Cem, Stade).

Continuing the thought about a viral adaptation, some children hinted at the concept of mutation. Paula explained this in remarkable detail:

The mutant variant that exists now is called B117, and it comes from the UK. Um, this is

… a more infectious mutant. Um, mutants are actually copying errors of the virus when it multiplies, um, and that's why the original Corona virus is actually no longer as

widespread, but rather the B117 variant (Paula, Berlin).

The description of symptoms and the potentially deadly outcome of a severe course of the disease was another core theme in the responses. Their understanding of the difficult situation became particularly clear, as numerous children explained the life-threatening potential of Corona in partly drastic images: “It's kind of … like when you're choking alive …” (Antonia, Berlin).

Most symptoms that the children described painted the picture promoted to be typical of Corona in the media, including difficulties to breathe or fever. Several participants explained that for children, Corona was like getting the flu. Saada, however, added two specific symptoms:

I only know that Corona is an illness, first of all, you feel like you have flu and stuff, and then I also heard that you can't smell so good, you can't taste and stuff like that (Saada, Stade).

All participants explained at least one way that Corona could be transmitted. Like Alina, several children connected transmission to saliva or air:

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[You can get Corona] when someone coughs or sneezes or something, and you breathe it in or something, and then the virus comes (Alina, Berlin).

Alina further drew the connection between physical closeness to someone who had Corona and contagion:

Corona is a virus that could infect people if you're somehow too close or cough or, well, it's contagious, maybe better like that (Alina, Berlin).

Finally, some participants mentioned touching objects that others had touched before as a possible source of transmission:

So, [you must not] swap pens, because for example, if someone has Corona, he gives me a pen, and then I infect myself (Saada, Stade).

As these quotes illustrate, the detail that the children’s explanations included varied, whereby the accounts of the children in Berlin tended to be more detailed and wordier than those in Stade. At the same time, all children gave an equally accurate account of Corona’s nature, including

symptoms and ways of transmission in line with the biomedical information communicated in the popular media.

Intuitive explanations

Despite these scientific explanations, children from both groups simultaneously presented explanations reaching into the magical or superstitious realm.

While the definitions of Corona mostly grasped the concept of a tiny agent causing the

corresponding disease, only a few children were able to distinguish the concept of a virus from bacteria and other “stupid sick-thingies” (Saada, Stade). Notably, the fact that a significant number of participants were no native speakers of German may have sometimes influenced the precision of their accounts. One terminological confusion illustrates how obscure these terms may seem to some children. Sinan gave detailed explanations of the situations he associated with contagion, connecting them with the necessity to comply with the rules. When elaborating on Corona’s nature, he unintentionally created a neologism that in German alludes to a colloquial word for bacterium (Bakterie) and the word for animal (Tier), describing Corona as a “a bac-tier”

(Sinan, Stade). While the respondent did not consciously create this association, the resulting confusion on my side of the interview gave me an idea of the uncertainty with which these terms may find their way into the everyday language of children learning pandemic vocabulary and a

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References

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