CDC says schools should reopen, but will data improve?

The CDC’s updated guidance focuses on testing, but makes no mention of reporting the results of said testing.

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 betsy@coviddatadispatch.com

More K-12 reporting

  • CDC says schools should reopen, but will data improve?
    The CDC made a major announcement this Friday: the agency updated its recommendations for COVID-19 safety in K-12 schools. The guidance adds to growing evidence that the majority of America’s K-12 schools will be fully open in the fall. But we still do not have good data on COVID-19 in schools.
  • 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.

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