Schools are reopening (again), but we still can’t track them

K-12 schools across the country are open for the spring semester, even as America faces serious outbreaks in almost every state and a more contagious strain—more contagious for both children and adults—begins to spread. At the national level, we are still overwhelmingly unable to track how the virus is spreading in these settings.

Perhaps the most newsworthy opening this week was in Chicago, where students returned to classrooms for the first time since last March. Chicago’s teachers union has waged an ongoing battle with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and district CEO Janice Jackson, whom teachers claim have not resolved ongoing safety issues in school buildings. The district is screening staff through optional rapid tests once a month; about 1,200 tests have been reported so far, including three positive results. Four Chicago students and 34 other staff members reported COVID-19 cases this week.

Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden announced a $175 billion plan aimed at getting students back to in-person learning. The plan includes $35 billion for higher education and $130 billion for public K-12 schools, with a focus on increasing testing, PPE for students and teachers, ventilation, and other safety measures for which educators have been calling since last spring.

Biden hopes to open “the majority of K-8 schools,” according to Education Week’s Evie Blad. A recent report by the CDC suggests that in-person learning for these younger students, when implemented safely, is not likely to seed an outbreak in the wider community. (College-aged students in the 18-24 range are more likely to cause such outbreaks.)

The report says: “CDC recommends that K–12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.”

But, as Blad points out, it will be difficult to track the impact that more school reopening would have on broader communities, as data on COVID-19 cases in schools are still limited and fractured. There is still no federal dataset on COVID-19 in American public schools. State datasets are fully unstandardized; and most states only report case counts, making it difficult to actually analyze how school outbreaks compare across schools.

As of our most recent K-12 state annotation update, only Delaware, New York, and Texas are providing enrollment numbers, and only New York is providing testing numbers.  (Thank you to intern Sarah Braner for doing the update this week!)

In last week’s recommended reading section, I featured an op ed in Nature by school data leader Emily Oster calling on President-elect Biden to develop a unified, national system for tracking COVID-19 in schools. I wanted to highlight it again this week because I absolutely agree with Oster here. As important as her and others’ compilation efforts have been in filling the school data gap, no outside dashboard can replace the work of the federal government:

We need to be able to identify the virus spreading in schools and work out what went wrong. The data we do have suggest that outbreaks in schools are not common, but they do happen. We need a way to find them systematically.

As far as I can tell, there is no mention of data-gathering in Biden’s K-12 COVID-19 plan.

And here’s one more school-related metric we should be tracking: teachers are starting to get vaccinated. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of state vaccination priority groups, 31 states have put K-12 and childcare personnel in their Phase 1 group. In Utah, teachers and childcare workers are even included in Phase 1A. California and New York, two of the biggest states, started vaccinating teachers this past week.

(If you want a heartwarming read this long weekend, I recommend this piece from THE CITY that profiles NYC teachers and other essential workers getting vaccinated in the middle of the night.)

But most states are barely reporting basic demographic data for their vaccinations, much less telling the public the occupations of those who have gotten shots. Without knowing how many teachers have been vaccinated, it will be difficult to factor these inoculations into reopening decisions—or determine how vaccination impacts future school outbreaks.

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