School data update, Jan. 3

Many school districts across the nation will once again open for in-person instruction later this month. But data on how COVID-19 spreads in schools remain inadequate. At the request of one of my readers, I’ve updated my annotations of state K-12 data reporting, first published on December 6.

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How are states reporting COVID-19 in schools?

In total, 35 states report case counts in all public K-12 schools. 6 states report in an incomplete form, either not including all schools or not including specific case counts. 9 states do not report school COVID-19 data at all. These states are: Alaska, California, Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.

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COVID-19 school data remain sporadic

On November 18, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s schools would close until further notice. The NYC schools discrepancy is indicative of an American education system that is still not collecting adequate data on how COVID-19 is impacting classrooms—much less using these data in a consistent manner.

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School data with denominators

Emily Oster, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Brown University, collaborated with software company Qualtrics and several national education associations to build a COVID-19 school dashboard which focuses on case rates, not counts. I spoke to Oster this past Tuesday, only four days after the dashboard’s public release. She explained more detail about the project’s methodology and her future plans for tracking COVID-19 in schools.

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Data on schools reopening lag the actual reopening of schools

As conversations on school reopening heighten at both national and local levels, a data journalist like myself has to ask: what data do we have on the topic? Is it possible to track how school reopening is impacting COVID-19 outbreaks, or vice versa? The answer is, as with any national question about COVID-19, the data are spotty. It’s possible to track cases and deaths at the county level, but no source comprehensively tracks testing at a level more local than the state. It is impossible to compare percent positivity rates—that crucial metric many districts are using to determine whether they can safely reopen—both broadly and precisely across the country.

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