School & District Management

Districts Struggle to Keep Tabs on COVID-19 Cases

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 11, 2020 6 min read
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More than 70,000 new cases of COVID-19 were identified among U.S. children in the last week of August and first week of September, as schools began to reopen. But there was no systematic way for education leaders to know whether sick children or their ill adult peers ended up on campus—or for district leaders to get a handle on when to close schools to curb an outbreak.

The federal government does not publicly track school-related COVID-19 cases. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did track coronavirus-related school closures last spring, it has not continued to track school closures or moves to full-remote learning related to outbreaks this fall.

Nationwide, fewer than half of states collect and provide (or are preparing to provide) any public data on COVID-19 infections related to schools. Some states such as New York and Michigan have announced they would launch data dashboards this month.

And of the states that do have dashboards, not all provide the same level of detail. Mississippi’s dashboard, for example, includes both the total new and cumulative cases among students and staff at each school, while Tennessee’s notes, in addition to the number of COVID-19 cases at a school, whether the school uses an in-person or hybrid learning model, which could create a higher risk for spreading infection.

Where’s the Data?

Even when the data are public, they can be difficult for educators, administrators, and parents to find. For example, Michigan plans to begin posting data to a dashboard on its health department site later this month, while Tennessee’s education department posts its own coronavirus dashboard. In Texas, schools submit weekly reports on the number of people in their buildings who have tested positive for the virus to the Texas Education Agency, but send separate, more detailed forms to local health departments for contact tracing.

Critics in several states, including Florida, Iowa, Michigan, and Texas, have voiced concern that states are providing too little guidance for districts, and delays and reporting issues have made it more difficult to identify potential outbreaks in time to get ahead of them.

Elements for a District COVID-19 Dashboard

  • Student absences from COVID-19: a daily or weekly update (as often as is feasible) of the number of positive test results. Some districts use totals, while others use school-by-school or grade-span totals.
  • Staff absences from COVID-19: The same data as student totals, but for staff. It can be helpful to separate out staff from student infections as some studies have suggested school-based outbreaks are more likely to begin among staff or other adults on campus.
  • Cumulative totals or 7- or 14-day rolling averages of COVID-19 absences: These data can help identify trends over time, which can be particularly important in comparing district infections to community spread rates when trying to make a decision about whether to move to remote instruction.
  • Staff/student absences from quarantine: This data takes into account those who have been identified based on symptoms or through contact with an infected person, but who have not received a positive coronavirus test themselves.
  • Staff/student absences from other illnesses: A few districts are also collecting data on absences from other illnesses, since symptoms from the coming flu and allergy seasons will likely mimic coronavirus in many ways. Understanding trends in these illnesses can help administrators understand whether their schools are experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak or something less severe.

In Iowa, a largely rural state which has seen one of the largest recent spikes in coronavirus rates, confusion over how to track and report outbreaks has caused widespread problems for districts trying to respond. The state does not release school-related coronavirus data, meaning districts must rely on parent reports or direct relays from local health departments to identify a student or staff member who is absent due to COVID-19. In order to change over to remote learning, a district must have at least a 10 percent COVID-19 infection among students and staff, as well as an infection rate of at least 15 percent in the county. And students who are quarantined at home because of coronavirus exposure would not count toward that absenteeism threshold, making it incredibly difficult for district administrators to properly calculate infection rates when requesting a move to remote-only learning.

“Districts are having to do all the work themselves,” said Sara Anne Willette, a data analyst who has run an independent Iowa COVID-19 case tracker since March. “Some districts are in counties with great public health departments, some are in counties where they hear about cases from parents and never hear about them from the [health department.] In a lot of our rural districts where cases are spiking, the health department gets overwhelmed and they don’t have time to keep the district informed. … When it comes to rural districts, it’s been a very steep learning curve.”

Stopgap Groups Step Up

In the absence of solid data, independent groups and local partnerships are filling in as stopgaps for many districts. For example, the National Education Association launched a nationwide tracker of reports of school-related COVID-19 outbreaks, based on a spreadsheet that Kansas teacher Alisha Morris built from Google searches and news reports. Now, the tracker allows users to report cases from their own schools or districts and search for confirmed and suspected cases by state. Similarly, the COVID Monitor, an online tracker developed by a former health official in Florida, aggregates data from news reports and local health data.

Willette, a data analyst who also has an autoimmune disorder, has been working with schools, health offices, and the public to maintain an associated school coronavirus map for her Iowa COVID-19 tracker. Willette’s tracker includes not just data on overall cases, but also the numbers of staff and students quarantined and recovered and the grade spans affected where possible. Research to date has suggested elementary-age students may be less likely to contract and spread the coronavirus than high school students and adults.

Yet at a time when hundreds of students may be quarantined in a single outbreak, individual and crowdsourced trackers can’t help every district. To keep ahead of outbreaks, education leaders need more local partnerships.

Local Partnerships

In a bad winter, North Shore School District 112 in Illinois is used to making day-to-day decisions on snow days. Now, Superintendent Michael Lubelfeld tracks a different daily forecast, from the Lake County Health Department.

The week after Labor Day, as students settled into a new school year of hybrid remote and in-person learning, the clouds were already gathering as Lubelfeld reported a dozen of his own students quarantined for the coronavirus. Also, community infection rates had ticked up from 13 to 14 per 100,000 people during the week.

“When it goes over 14 [infections] per 100,000, that’s telling me like a weather forecast that we’ve got a problem,” he said. If the rate stays that high through the week, the district will switch over to full virtual instruction until infection rates drop. “We’re not there yet, but I’m checking this literally every day and I’m comparing the number of live cases and going over the math.”

In spite of the uncertainty, Lubelfeld considers his district lucky. Illinois doesn’t release school-related coronavirus case data, and its overall data typically lags by seven to 10 days. The district has been able to keep on top of new cases and make calls about how to plan in-person and remote learning thanks to a close partnership with its county health department.

Student data privacy can already be a minefield for administrators and student health data even more so, but federal guidelines suggest districts can work with local health departments for contact tracing and to keep their communities informed about outbreaks without running afoul of either the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or the Health Information Privacy Act.

For example, when a North Shore, Ill., teacher contracted COVID-19 the week school started up for staff, the district and county health department used the case as an opportunity to run parallel contact tracing to check each agency’s work and plan how to reach out to the community.

Only three others had to go into quarantine, Lubelfeld said, and the district held a week of practice for all staff and families in submitting symptom self-checks—a rehearsal he credits with helping the district find students who had been infected before they arrived for in-person learning on the first day of school.

“The cornerstone is keeping in clear communication with our families,” he said. Keeping the virus in check requires a “triangle of information,” he said, from the school, the health department, and families.

“My hope is that our requests and regular communication will get our families to stand up and join that; so that a family would reach out to us before we had to hear from the county.”

Staff writer Arianna Prothero contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2020 edition of Education Week as Districts Struggle to Keep Tabs on COVID-19 Cases in Schools, Communities

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