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The New York Times’ Shifting Narrative on School COVID Closures

A student returns to New York City’s public schools for in-person learning at P.S. 506 in Brooklyn, N.Y., December 7, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

On September 1, New York Times health and science reporter Apoorva Mandavilli published a rare first-person account that detailed her own decision as a parent on whether to send her children back to school.

Mandavilli, who won the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting in 2019, said she had created an imaginary spreadsheet detailing both sides of the debate, based on every study and expert she had talked to.

Some of her main takeaways: “Fewer children than adults become infected. But childhood infection is not uncommon,” she noted, explaining that over two weeks in August “the number of children diagnosed in the United States jumped by 74,160, a 21 percent increase.” Another section mentioned “multisystem inflammatory syndrome” as proof that “children do become sick with the virus.” And she noted that, while it’s unclear how effectively children transmit the virus, they “can spread the virus to others.”

After drawing out a host of concerns, Mandavilli’s verdict seemed to defy her dire warnings. “My children, who are 11 and 8, need to learn in person and are desperate to see their friends. We’ve decided to send our children back to school,” she concluded.

The story, which was run as an article, not an op-ed, represents one example of a trend identified by a recent academic paper, which seeks to answer the question: “Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News?” According to the authors, researchers from Dartmouth College and Brown University, “ninety percent of school reopening articles from U.S. mainstream media are negative” — 34 points more bearish than English-language articles in international major media.

According to epidemiologists and pediatricians who spoke to National Review, part of the explanation for the dour coverage has to do with how media outlets allow political considerations to color coverage of empirical scientific topics.

***

As COVID-19 hit full swing in March, countries and school districts around the world shut down, a decision that the majority of health experts believe was completely justified, based on incomplete information and a fear that the virus would rip through younger populations like past influenza pandemics.

“The whole issue of the schools is 1: Are you going to spread the disease among kids, and if so, how terrible is it? And No. 2: Would the kids become a source of infection for teachers, faculty, and the rest of their family? And then the third assumption is that if you keep kids home, you prevent spread — and we knew very little about any of those assumptions at the time,” Dr. Dan Cooper, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, explained.

But quickly, studies began to emerge that showed COVID-19 was defying expectations.

“The experience in different school systems around the world in the spring suggested that COVID might be a little bit different, because as schools were shutting down, and they looked at children who were in the school who happened to be affected, there was remarkably little transmission,” Dr. William V. Raszka, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at the University of Vermont, told National Review. “It was actually hard to find transmission particularly amongst young children.”

While different countries enacted different strategies of mitigation, complicating the overall picture, a general consensus began to emerge — COVID-19 does not strike children at the same serious rates that it does in the elderly or in people with underlying health conditions.

“I think one of the failures early on is this virus is incredibly lethal in older people. It’s like a cruise missile in a nursing home; I mean, it’s devastating,” Vinay Prasad, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California San Francisco, told National Review. “It is not something to trivialize, even in middle-aged people — I’m in that camp; I’m 37. But the nice thing about it, a blessing, is that it was not very lethal in kids. And yet . . . to some degree, the entire field responded to it by trying to make this worse than it was in the people in whom it wasn’t worse.”

Since April, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been tracking cases among children and, as of May 21, hospitalizations and deaths as well. According to data released this week, both the child hospitalization and mortality rate has steadily fallen since May to 1.4 and 0.01 percent, respectively — even as more states have begun tracking the data.

But a big question remained: Do kids spread the disease, especially at the same rate as adults? The issue became politically polarized in early July, after President Trump entered the fray and demanded that schools be open in the fall.

“The moment Trump said that we ought to get people back in schools, there was a huge chunk of people that, I think, to some degree, just wanted to defy Trump,” Prasad said. “I mean, I’m sympathetic to it — I’m not a big Trump fan myself — but just because the man says the sun rises in the east doesn’t mean it rises in the west. Occasionally he is saying the right thing, and in this case, he was right.”

***

Immediately, the paper of record pivoted to counter the White House. In a July 11 piece, the Times warned that “even if it turns out that children do not spread the virus efficiently, all it would take is one or two to seed new chains.” The article quoted a New Jersey nurse named Robin Cogan, who warned that “it feels like we’re playing Russian roulette with our kids and our staff.” While the Times identified her as a school nurse who sits on the state’s reopening committee, they failed to note that, based on her #Resistance Twitter account, she’s as partisan as the president.

Cooper said he was “really dismayed, from both sides, to see the politicization of an issue about the benefit of kids.”

“There was one political side that said — in fact I even heard public health people say this — ‘we’re gonna eliminate the virus.’ No you’re not. You’re not gonna eliminate the virus,” he said. “The idea that somehow the shutdown was trying to eliminate the virus, you can’t win that one with this kind of a virus that has very high infectivity rate.”

Also on July 11, a piece titled “‘I Don’t Want to Go Back’: Many Teachers Are Fearful and Angry Over Pressure to Return” ran in the Times, leading with the story of Hannah Wysong, a teacher at the Esperanza Community School in Tempe, Ariz. Only 19 paragraphs later did the Times reveal that Wysong actually “was willing to return” to teach in person.

“It is hard to weigh the risk of COVID with the well-being of students,” Wysong told National Review in an email five months after being profiled, admitting that the semester “has been more complicated than I could have known in July.” She explained that her school had started the year virtually for six weeks, then moved to a hybrid in-person schedule in September and October, before reverting back to online in November.

“It is challenging to grapple with the complexity of the situation without a ‘right’ answer for what to do,” she said.

On July 18, Mandavilli published a writeup of a South Korea study that drew a lot of attention. Titled “Older Children Spread the Coronavirus Just as Much as Adults, Large Study Finds,” it recapped the initial findings of a 64,779-person study, which tested for household spread and symptomatic communal spread. The findings suggested that “the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.”

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute — a regular expert source for the Times — was quoted saying that the study “is very carefully done, it’s systematic and looks at a very large population,” calling it “one of the best studies we’ve had to date on this issue.”

But a month later, the study’s authors indicated that 40 of the 41 original adults tested positive at the same time as the kids who supposedly infected them, meaning the original findings were bunk.

“The direction the arrow was going was uncertain in those studies; it wasn’t proven,” Prasad said. “And yet, it had a certain media narrative that the virus was being spread in schools, and I think that led to the intense push to close schools.”

Mandavilli covered the follow-up study, but the narrative had already been framed. In a ProPublica/New Yorker project published in September, Randi Weingarten — president of the American Federation of Teachers — cited the original Times writeup of the South Korea study as proof that the virus was dangerously transmissible through kids. She was not aware of the revision.

“We all have to always step back and say a single case has to be interpreted as a single case, a single study has to be interpreted as a single study; we need replication, we need to have ongoing data,” Raszka stated. “This summer, one of the interesting things is that there was so much information pouring out so quickly, that I think there was some challenge to make sure that every single bit of information was appropriately inspected and given weight on both sides and put into where it fit in the continuum.”

He added that part of the problem is the media obsession with top-line, flashy takeaways — which does not reflect the approach that health experts take to new findings. “I was interviewed by a reporter, a big well-known reporter, and I was trying to say ‘slow down,’ and literally the reporter said ‘well what in the world is my headline?’” he recalled.

***

So are kids in school causing increased transmission? While there’s hardly a consensus, those who think schools should be open cite data and examples from other countries — including in Europe, where countries such as France and Belgium have kept schools open despite massive surges in cases nationwide.

“The numbers of outbreaks — when you look around the world from schools, where mitigation is adhered to — is low,” Cooper told National Review. Raszka agreed. “If you put together a decent mitigation strategy: You tell people you should wear a mask, you try to do some sensible distancing — not perfect, but — there just isn’t that much transmission within the schools,” he said.

According to the AAP’s data, the number of cases per 100,000 children rose 6.1 times from June to September, but only rose 2.9 times from September to December as kids went back to school.

Cooper, who is currently conducting an IRB-approved research study in Orange County, Calif., looking at four different schools to measure serology and transmission rates, says such data calls the whole closing strategy into question.

“The assumption that keeping the kids home is going to prevent transmission has not been borne out at all by the data — in fact, the opposite. . . . We’ve seen the largest increase in pediatric COVID cases — and they’re mostly asymptomatic while schools have been closed. Hello?” he said.

Though his team has seen a spike in cases in recent weeks, he added that the “vast majority” of on-the-ground examples he has seen involve “parents and kids who are so excited to go back to school, and happy to go back to school.”

“Just one after another, parents who are [saying] ‘just please let my kid go back to school,’” he said. “We know from the data that kids, particularly low-income kids, are becoming less physically active at a time when we still have, by the way, an obesity epidemic, and the kids who are most affected by this disease are obese kids.”

To Prasad, the push to shut down schools for the sake of health misses the long-term implications of leaving kids behind.

“It’s bad for their mental health, for their physical health, likely for their longevity, and certainly for their upward mobility and prosperity,” he said. “ . . . It’s a misnomer to think this is lives versus education — it’s lives versus lives as well; it’s just harder to see.”

On November 18, after Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof echoed the assessments. “School closures magnify these inequities, as many private schools remain open and affluent parents are better able to help kids adjust to remote learning. At the same time, low-income children fall even further behind,” he wrote.

Since the election, Mandavilli has covered four COVID-related studies for the Times. Three of them — regarding recovery rates in children, a lack of outbreaks in British schools, and how long immunity lasts — have been framed positively.

Send a tip to the news team at NR.

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