Fall school reopening plans demonstrate continued data gap

Earlier this week, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio made a big announcement: all the city’s schoolchildren are going back to the classroom this fall. There will no longer be a remote option. 

NYC was one of the first big cities to open with a hybrid model last fall, but it came with challenges—ranging from teachers protesting unsafe conditions, to in-person students doing “Zoom school” in the library, to closures dictated by confusing test positivity rates. The city’s choice to eliminate a remote option indicates a commitment to simple, unified policies for all students and teachers. It also suggests that many other districts may follow NYC’s lead—as the New York Times reported, a few districts already have.

Vaccine options for children ages 12 and older (now Pfizer, soon Moderna) make in-person education a safe bet for a lot of families. But younger students will likely have to wait much longer for their shots. As a result, regular testing will continue to be a key safety strategy, aided by American Rescue Plan funding dedicated specifically to school surveillance programs. Beyond identifying COVID-19 cases before they turn into outbreaks, testing can help parents and teachers feel safer about reopening plans.

But, as we have covered extensively here at the COVID-19 Data Dispatch, school testing data are incredibly hard to come by. New York continues to be the only state that reports any data on COVID-19 tests conducted in schools, and some states fail to even report COVID-19 school case counts.

The federal government is also failing to track these data. As POLITICO’s David Lim reported last week, the situation is pretty murky:

Since Biden took office, more schools have returned to hybrid and in-person classes, but it remains unclear what percentage of school districts across the country are regularly screening students and teachers for Covid-19. An Education Department spokesperson said the department is “not tracking that level of detail.” A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson said that “most states have offered or implemented testing programs in schools during the 2020-2021 school year,” adding that a survey conducted by the publication EdWeek in February found that just 16 percent of school district leaders said they were testing students.

Education and health groups — including the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the Rockefeller Foundation and American Federation of Teachers — also said they do not have comprehensive nationwide data on how many districts have testing programs in place.

This continued lack of data makes it difficult to evaluate how well school testing programs actually work. A lot of schools may be flying blind going into the fall 2021 semester, or they may choose not to set up regular testing at all.

I plan to do more reporting on this topic over the summer, including detailed investigations of individual school districts. If you have any burning questions, send them my way (betsy@coviddatadispatch.com).

More K-12 schools reporting

  • Fall school reopening plans demonstrate continued data gap
    Vaccine options for children ages 12 and older (now Pfizer, soon Moderna) make in-person education a safe bet for a lot of families. But younger students will likely have to wait much longer for their shots. As a result, regular testing will continue to be a key safety strategy… but school testing data continue to be hard to come by.
  • State K-12 school data still leave much to be desired
    The academic year is coming to an end for most schools pretty soon, 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, but states have not improved much through the school year.
  • CDC says 80% of teachers and childcare workers are vaccinated, fails to provide more specifics
    This past Tuesday, April 6, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a press release that I found heartening, yet confusing. “Nearly 80 percent of teachers, school staff, and childcare workers receive at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine,” the release proclaims. These vaccinations include “more than 2 million” people in these professions who received doses through the federal retail pharmacy program and “5-6 million” vaccinated through state programs, all of whom received shots before the end of March.
  • K-12 school updates, March 21
    K-12 school data updates for the week of March 21 include new funding for testing, a new database on school closures, new CDC guidance, and controversy.
  • Teachers can get vaccinated in every state, but we don’t know how many are
    As of this past Monday, K-12 teachers in every state are now eligible for vaccination. Teachers were already prioritized in most of the country, but Biden directed the remaining states to adjust their priority lists last week. The federal government also pulled teachers into the federal pharmacy program, previously used for long-term care facilities. But there’s one big problem: we have no idea how many teachers have actually been inoculated.

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