Public schools

Don't Let the Media Scare You With COVID Numbers From L.A. Schools

Eighteen months into the pandemic, news outlets are still selling sensationalism and burying context


One of the most irritating parts about being a parent of school-aged children during the past 18 months has been trying to hack through the journalistic hysteria enough to extract useful and contextual information about COVID, group settings, and kids.

Last August, that meant brushing past the "kids are not all right" headlines to get to underlying studies showing that no, minors are not carrying and transmitting the disease in numbers similar to adults, and that the policy response of preemptively closing most elementary schools was not consistent with the available research and contrary track records in summer camps and functioning schools around the world.

The result of those failures of both journalism and policy? "Devastating learning setbacks," The New York Times editorialized this week. (Pssst: Y'all should tell that to the newsroom.)

This August, shamefully if not quite surprisingly, many American news outlets are exhibiting the same preference for acontextual, anecdotal sensationalism, as bedraggled parents muster themselves for a third consecutive school year marred by the coronavirus.

You can see this on a recurring basis in the way that media companies are presenting the latest findings of an unusually large dataset—weekly universal test results from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The LAUSD, which has been one of the most closed school districts in the country during COVID (despite enjoying window-opening weather year-round), is spending a staggering amount of money—$350 million—to conduct mandatory weekly tests on all 450,000 students and 60,000 employees, regardless of vaccination status. (Teachers and staff face a mandatory vaccination deadline of Oct. 15.)

There are certainly pros and cons to this massive testing regime from the perspective of L.A. County taxpayers, parents, students, and LAUSD employees. But policy soundness aside, Operation Nose Swab gives reporters, researchers, and public officials a mountain of data from which to glean and disseminate useful information.

Instead, we get headlines like this: "1,893 L.A. students, staff tested positive for coronavirus last week, group reports," "Nearly 2,000 LA students, staff test positive for COVID-19," "LAUSD Reports 118 New Covid Cases In One Day, Most Of Them Among Students, During First Week Of School."

Given a humongous dataset from the country's second-largest school district conducting an unprecedentedly intrusive testing regime, newspapers and websites are electing to emphasize the scary-sounding numerator while burying the denominator. In a kind of inverted pyramid of sensationalism (perverted pyramid, maybe?), it's only further down in the story, if at all, where you can find stuff like percentages, and even then such less-alarming treatments of the data are often presented with darkly speculative caveats.

"That's a positivity rate of roughly 0.8%," Deadline Hollywood wrote on Aug. 18 about L.A.'s initial test results. "That was far below the countywide positivity rate of 3.5% on Monday, but it could change as kids begin to gather en masse." Could!

In a piece yesterday with the raw-number headline of "Coronavirus cases lead to missed school days for 6,500 LAUSD students during first week," the L.A. Times waited until paragraph five to inform us that "L.A. Unified officials say they know of no cases that were transmitted from one person to another while on a campus since the start of school." Wait, that sounds pretty newsworthy, right? Maybe even headline-worthy? Well, here's the rest of that sentence: "although some parents have questioned that claim."

Now in the fourth-wave stage of the pandemic, we know so very much more about how the disease is transmitted, which demographics are most (and least) vulnerable, and what both the domestic private-school system and the international public school system have experienced over the past 12 months. And yet here is the New York Times news-side headline about California: "School Is Starting. Can Children Stay Safe From Covid-19?"

You have to read further down to get news that's considerably more reassuring than the hook: "experts say that though reopening does increase the risks of transmission, California classrooms will be among the safest in the nation."

I recognize the rocks-in-glass-houses futility (and potential hypocrisy) of complaining about news headlines geared toward activating the maximum possible fight-or-flight response. But it's so much more than headlines. Journalists are constructing edifices of nonsense out of context-free raw numbers taken over an unmentioned denominator of a half million people.

Here, for example, are two consecutive sentences from a piece this week on NPR's All Things Considered:

[T]he fact that kids are transmitting the coronavirus to family members is unnerving many parents all over the U.S. and putting extra stress on many households as children head back to school.

In the two weeks leading up to classes, 3,255 students tested positive for the coronavirus in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

These two sentences—how to say this?—are as related as a fish is to a bicycle. For starters, we know nothing about whether any of the LAUSD positive cases transmitted the virus to their parents. (We also don't know how many of them had symptoms or how many were hospitalized, which are other very important pieces of context.) It also may be worth mentioning here that the outfit compiling the dashboard that most news organizations are using is not the LAUSD, but a pro-union advocacy group called Parents Supporting Teachers that formed in December 2018 to back a teacher strike ("We started out by determining that the best way to support our teachers, was to keep our kids home from school").

The original headline on that All Things Considered piece, since changed, was crafted maximally to scare the bejeebus out of NPR listeners: "Vaccinated Parents Are Catching COVID As Schoolkids Bring the Virus Home." It's here where the LAUSD data will eventually make this season's media alarmists look retrospectively even more irresponsible.

Because we have nothing else like a weekly test of a half-million students and teachers, we will soon have incontrovertible evidence within the United States (since heaven knows we don't pay attention to similar studies worldwide) to assess the claim, popularized by teachers unions and politicians, that public schools can and will become "superspreaders."

Since the school year started in California (where the delta-fueled fourth wave has been burbling), the LAUSD positive test rate has actually gone down, from 0.8 percent to 0.6 percent. Should that trend continue, and should the school population continue to have a much lower positivity rate than the community overall, that should be the final nail in the coffin of preventative school shutdowns.

Sounds like a helluva news story, no?