The CDC made a major announcement this Friday: the agency updated its recommendations for COVID-19 safety in K-12 schools.
The new recommendations prioritize getting kids into classrooms, even when schools aren’t able to implement all prevention strategies. They also prioritize vaccination; the CDC says that all teachers and students over age 12 should get vaccinated, and those individuals who get their shots don’t need to wear masks at school.
This guidance adds to growing evidence that the majority of America’s K-12 schools will be fully open in the fall. Some areas that were bastions of remote learning—like New York City, where I live—will no longer allow that option.
But there’s a big problem with this trend: we still do not have good data on COVID-19 in schools. I’ve written about this issue extensively; over a year into the pandemic, there’s still no federal dataset on cases that have arisen in COVID-19 schools, and state reporting is incredibly fragmented. If this situation continues into next fall, we will be ill-equipped to understand which safety measures are working best in a fully reopened America—and to protect the young children who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, the COVID-19 Data Dispatch has maintained a set of annotations on school COVID-19 data. I updated these annotations yesterday after a couple of months’ hiatus. I found that, in some locations, reporting is even worse than it was in the spring.
Here are a few highlights:
- A number of states have paused their K-12 COVID-19 reporting for the summer, as schools are on break. These states include Alabama, Connecticut, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Dakotas, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.
- A couple of other states (Maine, Montana) appear to have paused this reporting, but did not include clear language on their dashboard to back this up.
- South Carolina and Delaware both stopped reporting for the summer, with notes on their dashboards indicating that the state health departments have not yet decided whether to resume reporting in the fall. Delaware’s note is particularly ominous.
- Florida stopped providing regular school COVID-19 reports in early June, when the state discontinued its dashboard and switched to providing a single weekly report for all state data.
- Both Arkansas and Iowa discontinued their school COVID-19 pages during the spring, with no indication that reporting will resume in the future.
Another major update to the CDC’s guidance, from my perspective, was a new emphasis on screening tests. The CDC now recommends regular COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated students and teachers, and for those taking part in school athletics and other higher-risk activities.
I was glad to see this update because my reporting on rapid tests—including an upcoming piece on rapid testing in schools—has led me to believe that this type of testing is a key strategy for avoiding school outbreaks. But it’s another area where good data are lacking right now. New York continues to be the only state reporting school testing numbers; and from the looks of other state dashboards, they don’t appear prepared to track these key data at a systematic level.
Delta is increasingly hitting younger populations, including children not old enough to be vaccinated. The CDC’s guidance encourages schools to bring these kids into classrooms, but it puts a lot of pressure onto individual districts at a time when they need more support, as Dr. Katelyn Jetelina points out in a recent Your Local Epidemiologist post.
The guidance also says literally nothing about data collection and reporting. I worry that, if we don’t get better data infrastructure in place for schools, we could miss Delta outbreaks this fall.
Also: this feels like a good time to announce that I’m currently working on a big project covering school reopening. I’m identifying and profiling districts that successfully brought their students back into classrooms, supported with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. The stories will be published here in the COVID-19 Data Dispatch starting in August.
As always, if you have questions or want to collaborate, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More K-12 reporting
- Sources and updates, September 11Sources and updates for the week of September 11 include annual boosters, K-12 school safety, children orphaned during the pandemic, and more.
- Sources and updates, June 12Sources and updates for the week of June 12 include Long COVID deaths, ventilation in schools, Moderna’s latest vaccine, and more.
- COVID-19 in schools data: still bad!In addition to the FiveThirtyEight story, I also had an article come out this week in The Grade, Alexander Russo’s column at KappanOnline. This piece takes a deep dive into Burbio, the company that has become a leading source for data on how COVID-19 impacted K-12 schools across the U.S—in the absence of comprehensive data on this topic from the federal government.
- Sources and updates, March 13Sources and updates for the week of March 13 include vaccine data annotations, free rapid tests, a combination of Delta and Omicron, and more.
- Why Utah’s innovative school COVID-19 testing program failedMy latest story with the Documenting COVID-19 project is an investigation into Utah’s school COVID-19 testing program, in collaboration with the Salt Lake Tribune. We investigated with a once-innovative program failed in fall 2021.