Every morning, Ashley, a mother of two on Long Island in New York, must navigate an ethical minefield: Her children’s schools send out a health questionnaire for COVID -19.
The “daily attestation,” as it’s called, asks students to volunteer information about their health: “Fever of 100 or more?” “Sore throat?” “In the past 14 days, have you knowingly had close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID -19?”
If you answer in the negative, you will be allowed entry. If you answer in a way that suggests you or a family member may be ill, you will be denied entry. And therein lies the problem: The forms are based on the honor system.
“My kids have runny noses all year,” said Ashley, who, like many other interviewees for this story, wants to be referred to only by her first name because she fears reprisals. “If I said, ‘Yes, they have one of these symptoms,’ they would not be able to go to school.
So Ashley does what she thinks is necessary. She fibs.
“It makes me uncomfortable when I do that,” she says, but adds, “You have to survive somehow.”
Some certification forms seem impractical, requiring parents to ask their preschool-age children about their health, while some at that age can not tell the difference between a sore throat and strep throat.
Other forms can be easily bypassed, making them ineffective.
In 2020, the College of Southern California developed a Trojan check system that students quickly discovered could be bypassed by signing in as a guest. One student even created an auto-fill shortcut and posted it on Reddit.
Lying on these questionnaires, which are also used by employers, airlines and daycare centers, has become so common that humor magazine McSweeney’s recently published a parody: “Fill out a daily health statement by 5 a.m. We understand you are going to lie. We understand you’ll be lying.”
Ethicists say a system in which people routinely give false answers can undermine public trust. “It sows the seeds of distrust,” said Keith Meador, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt College in Nashville, Tennessee. “We all have an obligation to protect each other.
Abbie, who works in marketing and lives in midtown Manhattan, often catches herself bending the truth, even though she has a young daughter who is too young to be eligible for the vaccine and a husband who is immunocompromised.
“She’s a crib baby – she’s had a cough since she went to the crib. Sometimes I say ‘no’ because that’s just her normal cough,” Abbie says. “But she actually has a cough, so I fib. I say ‘yes’ when it’s a different cough.”
Part of the problem is that the binary yes/no format leaves no room for nuance and tempts users to side with the healthy. This is especially true in schools and workplaces that have zero-symptom policies: Admitting to a headache, regardless of whether it’s a sinus infection, can lead to a 10-day quarantine at home.
So people are avoiding all the stress and hassle.
“Think of the consequences,” Ashley said. “You have working parents who have to completely rearrange their routines to figure out how to raise their kids and excel at their jobs at the same time. That leads to people becoming dishonest.”
So what purpose do these questionnaires serve? “They create accountability,” says Pamela Herd, a professor at Georgetown College’s McCourt School of Public Policy who studies surveys.
Herd added that people are more willing to disclose information when prompted, and more likely to answer honestly when surveyed by computer rather than face-to-face because they do not feel judged.
Herd also completes a daily screener for her middle school-aged daughter and has found that the questionnaire has not changed in more than a year. Answering the questionnaire has become a routine, an exercise in checking boxes with eyes half closed. “You do not read it anymore,” she said, “which might lessen the impact.”
The COVID -19 attestations first surfaced in the summer of 2020, as workplaces, schools and day camps considered how they could safely return to in-person attendance. Instead of collecting and analyzing all that data themselves, many schools and employers turned to vendors like Medcor, a health care company in Illinois, and Pikmykid, a technology company in Tampa, Florida, that makes an app that allows schools to track students’ whereabouts.
New York College has implemented the screeners, in part because it is required under the New York State Health and Essential Rights Act, but also because “allowing or blocking access to our buildings is an important part of enforcing our health protocols,” said John Beckman, a college spokesman.
Although “people do not love filling it out every day” to visit campus, Beckman added, “we continue to think it’s an effective tool.”
But the daily attestation could be forgotten. It’s a relic from the early days of the pandemic, when there were no vaccinations or readily available COVID -19 tests.
“As we evolved and learned more, many companies replaced day-to-day screenings with a vaccination or testing requirement,” said Carol Goodman, an employment attorney with the law firm Herrick Feinstein.
But many companies still use the forms, inadvertently encouraging parents and employees to fib.
The other day, Abbie forgot to fill out the COVID -19 certification for her daughter, but her daughter was still allowed to attend day care. The experience shook her confidence in the system. “The school obviously does not care about the parents who forget,” she said. “I wonder if other parents take it seriously.”