Data on schools reopening lag the actual reopening of schools

Reported COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools, compiled by Alisha Morris and other volunteers. Screenshot via Jon W.’s Tableau dashboard.

As I wrote in my coverage of the congressional subcommittee hearing on national COVID-19 response a few weeks ago, everyone wants to reopen the schools.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle, along with public health leaders such as the CDC’s Dr. Robert Redfield and NIAID’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, agree that returning to in-person learning is crucial for public health. Many children rely on food and health resources provided by schools. Parents rely on childcare. Without in-person schools, it is difficult for teachers and other mandated reporters to identify cases of child abuse. And all school students, from kindergarteners to college kids, are facing the mental health deterioration that comes from limited social interaction with their peers.

But in deciding whether and how to return to in-person learning, school districts around the country are facing the same challenge that states faced early in the pandemic: they’re on their own. Some districts may have guidance from local government; in New York, for example, schools are allowed to reopen if they are located in an area with a under 5% of COVID-19 tests returning positive results. Every county in the state meets this guideline, and the state as a whole has had a positivity rate under 1% for weeks.

Still, low community transmission does not indicate that a state is necessarily safe for reopening. Teachers in New York City have protested the city’s plan for school reopening, citing poor ventilation, no plan for regular testing, and other health concerns. Teachers in Detroit, outside of Phoenix, and other districts across the country are considering strikes. Earlier this week, the White House formally declared that teachers are essential workers—meaning they could continue working after exposure to COVID-19—which Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called a move to “threaten, bully, and coerce” teachers back into their unsafe classrooms. Meanwhile, many colleges and universities are planning to bring students from out of state into the communities around their campuses.

As conversations on school reopening heighten at both national and local levels, a data journalist like myself has to ask: what data do we have on the topic? Is it possible to track how school reopening is impacting COVID-19 outbreaks, or vice versa?

The answer is, as with any national question about COVID-19, the data are spotty. It’s possible to track cases and deaths at the county level, but no source comprehensively tracks testing at a level more local than the state. It is impossible to compare percent positivity rates—that crucial metric many districts are using to determine whether they can safely reopen—both broadly and precisely across the country.

The best a data journalist can do is represented in this New York Times analysis. The Times pulled together county-level data from local public health departments and evaluated whether schools in each county could safely open based on new cases per 100,000 people and test positivity rates. Test positivity rates are difficult to standardize across states, however, because different states report their tests in different units. And, if you look closely at this story’s interactive map, you’ll find that some states—such as Ohio, New Hampshire, and Utah—are not reporting testing data at the county level at all.

Still, some research projects and volunteer efforts are cropping up to document COVID-19 in schools as best they can. I will outline the data sources I’ve found here, and I invite readers to send me any similar sources that I’ve missed so that I can feature them in future issues.

How schools are reopening

  • COVID-19 Testing in US Colleges: Sina Booeshaghi and Lior Pachter, two researchers from CalTech, put together a database documenting testing plans at over 500 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. The database is open for updates; anyone who would like to suggest an edit or contribute testing information on a new school can contact the researchers, whose emails are listed in the spreadsheet. Booeshaghi and Pachter wrote a paper on their findings, which is available in preprint form on medRxiv (it has not yet been reviewed by other scientists).
  • The College Crisis Initiative: Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (or C2i) maps out fall 2020 plans for about 3,000 colleges and universities. Clicking on a college in the interactive map leads users to see a brief description of the school’s opening policy, along with a link to the school’s website. Corrections may be submitted via a Google form.
  • District Budget Decisions: Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University has compiled a database of choices school districts are making about how to change their budgets and hiring during the COVID-19 pandemic. The database includes 302 districts at the time I send this newsletter; district choices are categorized as budget trimming, salary reductions, benefits adjustment, furloughs, and layoffs.

Reporting COVID-19 in schools and districts

  • COVID-19 in Iowa: Iowa’s state dashboard includes a page which specifically allows users to check the test positivity rates in the state’s school districts. Click a school district in the table on the left, and the table on the right will automatically filter to show how testing is progressing in the counties encompassed by this district. So far, Iowa is the only state to make such data available in an accessible manner; other states should follow its lead.
  • NYT COVID-19 cases in colleges: Journalists at the New York Times surveyed public and private four-year colleges in late July. The analysis found at least 6,600 cases tied to 270 colleges since March. This dataset is not being actively updated, but it is an informative indicator of the schools that faced outbreaks in the spring and summer.
  • Individual school dashboards: Any large college or university that chooses to reopen, even in a partial capacity, must inform its students of COVID-19’s progress on campus. Some schools are communicating through regular emails, while others have put together school-specific dashboards for students, professors, and staff. Two examples of school dashboards can be found at Boston University and West Virginia University; at other schools, such as Georgia Tech, students have spun up their own dashboards based on school reports.

Reopening gone wrong

  • K-12 school closures, quarantines, and/or deaths: Weeks ago, Alisha Morris, a theater teacher in Kansas, started compiling news reports on instances of COVID-19 causing schools to stall or alter reopening plans. Morris’ project grew into a national spreadsheet with hundreds of COVID-19 school case reports spanning every U.S. state. She now manages the sheet with other volunteers, and the sheet’s “Home” tab advertises a new site coming soon. You can explore the dataset through a Tableau dashboard created by one volunteer.

Datasets under development

  • FinMango and Florida COVID Action collaboration: FinMango, a global nonprofit which has pivoted to help COVID-19 researchers, has partnered with Florida COVID Action, a data project led by whistleblower Rebekah Jones, to track COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools. The project, called the COVID Monitor, has already been compiling reports from media and members of the public since July. It includes about 1,300 schools with confirmed or reported COVID-19 cases so far, 200 of which are in the project’s home state of Florida.
  • ProPublica school reopening survey: A new initiative from ProPublica asks students, parents, educators, and staff to report on their schools’ reopening plans. Readers who might prefer to share information with ProPublica through more private means can get in touch on Signal or visit the publication’s tips page.
  • Nature university reopening survey: Similarly to ProPublica, Nature News is surveying its readers on their reopening experience. This survey specifically calls on research scientists to share how they will be teaching and if they agree with the approach their university has taken on reopening. Respondents who wish for more privacy can use Signal or WhatsApp.

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