As school districts return to an environment that more closely mirrors pre-pandemic classrooms and turn away from COVID-19 mitigation strategies like contact tracing and quarantines, many have also discontinued online dashboards tracking the prevalence of the virus in their schools.
Many districts early in the pandemic developed online tools with information about the number of reported cases—sometimes school-by-school—and quarantines. They often used the information to aid urgent decisions about whether to close schools or initiate mask mandates and to help in contact tracing.
The dashboards usually were updated weekly, sometimes daily, and school communities flocked to the resources during waves of infections to track COVID-19’s spread in their children’s schools.
The tools were generally developed when federal guidance emphasized contact tracing, quarantines, and in-school surveillance testing to both detect COVID-19 and prevent its spread in schools.
But in recent months, after three years of classes disrupted by pandemic-related measures and disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention walked back its guidance, deemphasizing in-school screening testing, contact tracing, and quarantines after close contacts.
That means many districts aren’t tracking cases as meticulously in their schools or making urgent day-by-day operational decisions. Some district leaders say the data included in the dashboards is impossible to keep current enough to be useful or representative of what’s actually happening in their schools.
“Over the summer, we started thinking about the purpose of the dashboard ... and at that point, we didn’t feel like any of the information on our dashboard was going to be as accurate,” said Kenny Rodrequez, superintendent of Grandview C-4 school district in Missouri.
More information can help families make health decisions
Other districts have decided something is better than nothing.
The Portland, Ore., school district updates its dashboard every weekday, but district leaders caution the data isn’t perfect and doesn’t account for cases that families and staff members don’t report.
“Our data is as good as what’s reported to us,” said Betse Thielman, health services program manager for the district.
What is reported on the dashboard can help families make the decisions that are best for their personal situation, Thielman said, like to wear a mask (it’s optional in the district) or get a booster shot.
“We as a district are dedicated to transparency with our families, because, you know, we are working in this business of education together,” Thielman said. “So we wanted to make sure that families and staff continue to have the resources they need to make decisions to keep their kids in school, and healthy enough to learn.”
If districts move to end their updates, it’s important to communicate why the decision was made, Rodrequez said. Communities were used to turning to the tool for information and need to understand that it’s no longer able to serve that purpose, he said. It may help to provide other local resources such as a county-level dashboard that may be more accurate.
“The pandemic’s not over necessarily, but we’re now on the very back side of all that, and they can see that we are adjusting to it,” Rodrequez said.
In Portland, there’s no timeline for when district leaders might stop the daily updates, Thielman said. But if COVID-19 becomes more manageable and cyclical, like the flu, for example, the district “may make different decisions about whether or not they keep it up next year.”
Regardless, the dashboards are just “information tools,” she said, and districts’ focus should be on clearly communicating mitigation strategies with communities to prevent infections.
Regardless of method, communication should be clear, consistent
No matter how schools decide to relay information, district leaders should outline early what families and staff can expect and be consistent, according to Mellissa Braham, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association.
“I think the more a school system is able to assess the communication needs and priorities of their families and their staff, the better able they’re going to be to plan how they’re going to communicate throughout the year,” she said.
The beginning of the school year is a great time to give families specific examples of what kind of messages they might receive, such as about health concerns or COVID specifically.
It could be helpful to tie updates, like about the importance of hand washing and vaccines, to messages near holiday seasons or the start of a new sports season, Braham said. If districts share health information, whether through messages or a dashboard, they should work closely with local health leaders to make sure it’s accurate and comprehensive.
“Each organization has its role and ... we don’t want to supersede the role of local health officials,” she said. “That said, there are appropriate places where we can use our existing structure to help share important information, and if we can make it relevant to the work of schools, then it makes more sense for a school community to be sharing that information.”