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

  • Sources and updates, July 16
    Sources and updates for the week of July 16 include detecting SARS-CoV-2 in the air, regular testing in schools, Google trends, and more.
  • Sources and updates, April 9
    Sources and updates for the week of April 9 include Omicron boosters, federal Long COVID progress, ventilation improvements in K-12 schools, and more.
  • Sources and updates, March 12
    Sources and updates for the week of March 12 include Long COVID deaths, gastrointestinal symptoms, trust in public health agencies, and more.
  • Wastewater surveillance can get more specific than entire sewersheds
    This week, I had a new article published in The Atlantic about how COVID-19 wastewater surveillance can be useful beyond entire sewersheds, the setting where this testing usually takes place. Sewershed testing is great for broad trends about large populations (like, an entire city or county), the story explains. But if you’re a public health official seeking truly actionable data to inform policies, it’s helpful to get more specific.
  • Callout: No, NYC, those schools aren’t in Colombia
    For several days now, the New York City Department of Education’s COVID-19 case map has had a significant error: on this dashboard, a number of schools are erroneously located in Colombia. Like, the South American country.

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