Health and data reporter Betsy Ladyzhets on sensationalist school COVID headlines, missing context, and the importance of interviewing school clerks

Alexander Russo:

I first became aware of data journalist Betsy Ladyzhets about a year ago, working on a piece about smart ways to cover COVID cases in schools. She was concerned about the lack of data and transparency around school COVID cases. I was concerned that COVID school coverage was unnecessarily amplifying reopening risks and fears.

Little did I know then that I’d have many of the same concerns a year later – or that Ladyzhets would be writing more than ever about schools and COVID. With the help of the Solutions Journalism Network, she has now profiled five schools and districts that managed to reopen last year and keep kids and teachers safe. “The divided communities made the news — but not all U.S. schools were fighting grounds,” she wrote last month. “Many districts managed to bring the majority of their students back into classrooms without breeding a dreaded COVID-19 outbreak.”

These stories are a useful roadmap for education reporters and a great opportunity to learn what a health and science data journalist thinks about how COVID school stories are being written.

“Stories that highlight school outbreaks and tension may cause readers to think there’s no way to open schools safely,” Ladyzhets told me. “At the same time, stories that argue, ‘schools are extremely low risk’ or, ‘we don’t know if masks are actually beneficial for young kids,’ are also harmful.”