COVID-19 in schools data: still bad!

Screenshot of Burbio’s K-12 School Opening Tracker, taken on March 27.

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.

Burbio is pretty popular among education journalists, I learned in writing this story. Dennis Roche, one of the company’s founders, writes a weekly newsletter providing updates on COVID-19 in schools, and often makes himself available to answer reporters’ questions. Burbio has also become a major data source for the CDC, to the point that the agency provided Burbio with a $600,000 grant for its tracking efforts in the 2021-22 school year.

However, in the story, I discuss several red flags that stood out to me as a science, health, and data journalist. These include:

The company does not clearly disclose its dataset’s limitations, nor does it disclose its funding sources. Its data are not publicly available for researchers to vet. The popular data on school “disruptions” are easy to misinterpret when cited without context.

Journalists citing Burbio should be clear about the data source’s limitations, I wrote. And they should also consider alternative sources; while Burbio filled a void by the federal government, it’s not the only source doing this work. The story highlights several potential options: MCH Strategic Data, the American Enterprise Institute’s Return to Learn tracker, a scientific researcher’s dataset, and an HHS dashboard that compiles data from multiple sources (including Burbio).

Notably, Burbio did not even attempt to track COVID-19 cases in schools, opting instead to focus on learning modes and safety policies. A couple of research projects did track school cases in the 2020-21 school year, but this specific metric is now primarily tracked by state health departments with no comprehensive federal source. (The COVID School Tracker, one volunteer-run site that is still actively updating, compiles data from states.)

To see what school COVID-19 case data each state is reporting, you can check out my annotations page here; I updated the annotations of both state and national sources yesterday.

Some states are now reducing their reporting in this area, aligning with the overall recent trend of cutting back on COVID-19 data at the state level.  A couple of notable examples:

  • Indiana switched from reporting school-specific cases to reporting school-aged cases (i.e. all cases in children ages 5 to 18 or so). Reporting school-aged cases is often easier for a health department, since it doesn’t require contact tracing cases to classrooms.
  • Ohio stopped its reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools entirely. As of mid-March, schools in Ohio are no longer required to report most COVID-19 cases among students and staff to their local health departments, according to local news site Spectrum News 1 in Columbus. (The exception is cases identified by COVID-19 testing within schools.)
  • Vermont also stopped its reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools. A note on the state’s “PreK-12 Schools” page reads: “Due to changes in testing and contact tracing in schools, the COVID-19 Cases in Schools While Infectious report will no longer be updated after Jan. 10, 2022.

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