State K-12 school data still leave much to be desired

The academic year is coming to an end for most schools pretty soon (I’ve been off for about a week, but I’m a college student), so we thought it’d be appropriate to check in on the state of state K-12 COVID-19 data. We’ve been keeping track of the metrics reported by states throughout the fall and spring, and you can find our annotations of those sources here

We had a few metrics that we looked for in a school tracker (if one exists for a state at all, which we’ll get to.) These include cases, hospitalizations, deaths, tests, test positivity rate, and in-person enrollment. We also wanted to know if trackers were separating student cases from staff cases. While we didn’t expect every state tracker to account for all of these, a robust tracker should include at least a few.

Turns out, no state trackers reported all of our wished-for metrics. Most trackers—37 of them—just reported cases and called it good, and 24 of them separated cases by students and staff. There are too many states in this vein to list them all, but a few include Alabama, Indiana, Idaho, the Dakotas, South Carolina, and Oregon (which is my home state so I’m a bit more disappointed.) 

But when we narrow it down to slightly more granular metrics like hospitalizations, the number of trackers that report them drop significantly. Only five states reported deaths: Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, and Virginia. Three reported hospitalizations: Illinois, Kansas, and Georgia. Two reported tests: Georgia and New York. (One caveat for Georgia: they’re not actually reporting cases in schools, they’re reporting cases in school-aged children.)

To assess how robust a particular state’s tracker was, we assigned it an index number based on how many metrics it reported. (The methodology for doing so can be found here.) Essentially, a higher number indicates a more robust tracker. With this methodology, the top five states were New York (19), Kentucky (14), Texas (14), New Hampshire (14) and South Carolina (13). The bottom three were Utah, Arizona, and Kansas (all 7.) The average was between 8 and 9, with a median of 9. 

However, so far we’ve been talking about states with school trackers at all. 11 states do not track school cases (at the very least, we couldn’t find their school tracker). I’ll actually list these out: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming. 

In pointing this out, I’m not trying to shame the public health authorities in these states who are working very hard to get this pandemic under control. I’m trying to get the point across that statewide school data is still very fractured and very incomplete. And while we wait for a complete federal tracker, state data is really all we have. COVID-19 is still going to be a threat in schools as long as people under 16 can’t get vaccinated; we should at least know how much of a threat it’s turned out to be.

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