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

  • 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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