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

  • The challenges of routine COVID-19 testing in schools
    At this point in the pandemic, we know that routine COVID-19 testing can be a key tactic for reducing transmission in communal settings. If you identify cases as soon as they occur through asymptomatic testing, you can quickly isolate those cases and quarantine their contacts—preventing the cases from turning into outbreaks. This strategy works everywhere from kindergarten classrooms to the NBA.
  • Opening project conclusion: 11 lessons from the schools that safely reopened
    In the COVID-19 Data Dispatch’s “Opening” series, we profiled five school communities that successfully reopened during the 2020-2021 school year. Through exploring these success stories, we found that the schools used many similar strategies to build trust with their communities and keep COVID-19 case numbers down.
  • Fall 2021 school reopening: Stats so far
    The COVID-19 Data Dispatch has, clearly, been pretty focused on school reopening in recent weeks. But our “Opening” project is primarily retrospective, looking back at schools that were successful last school year. This fall, the Delta variant and additional political pressures have made reopening success even harder to achieve.
  • Opening profile: Going above and beyond in Crown Heights, Brooklyn
    P.S. 705 went above and beyond New York City school reopening guidance, with a particular reliance on the city’s surveillance testing program. This elementary school had a 55% enrollment by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, above the city’s average of about 40%, and made it through the year with just 11 total cases — and zero closures.
  • Opening profile: Close-knit community in Port Orford and Langlois, Oregon
    A school-library partnership exemplifies the close-knit community of the two small, coastal towns making up the Port Orford-Langlois School District. This district built up community trust and used a cautious, step-by-step reopening strategy to make it through the 2020-2021 school year with zero cases identified in school buildings.

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