The Federal Government Isn't Monitoring Coronavirus In Schools At All

A college student holding a backpack and a face mask
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A new report reveals why it’s so problematic that the federal government isn’t monitoring COVID-19 in schools

Considering the U.S. was still firmly in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic at the start of the school year, the decision to reopen school doors was a polarizing one. Teachers expressed their concerns. Parents felt anxious. Some families chose to pursue homeschooling or continue full-time distance learning. The general assumption? Once school started back, the number of COVID-19 cases in schools would be closely monitored — painting a clearer picture of how the novel coronavirus is affecting schools overall.

Only, a comprehensive new report by The New York Times shows that’s simply not the case. “There is no federal effort to monitor coronavirus cases in schools, and reporting by school districts is uneven,” the report explains.

In short, there are no cohesive numbers for the country as a whole. We lack a proper barometer of COVID-19 in American classrooms.

For their report, the Times focused on district-level and statewide coronavirus case totals among public schools in the U.S. In the absence of federal monitoring, they sought to identify case totals in kindergarten through 12th grade since schools reopened, with the case counts representing the latest available data. For their research, they surveyed every school district in eight states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

What they discovered was that reporting periods and methods vary widely by district and state. Some districts routinely disclose their active cases. Others refuse to disclose those numbers, citing “privacy concerns.” Much of the information that comes from local and state agencies is incomplete. Eleven states don’t publish any information at all on COVID-19 cases in school.

The Times found monitoring COVID-19 in schools to be just as inconsistent as reporting it. Some districts outright admitted they don’t track coronavirus cases in their schools. Others said they only loosely monitored numbers in the first few weeks of school.

The Times’ data also shows some schools reporting zero cases in areas reporting high COVID-19 cases overall. Is this because the schools aren’t tracking cases? Because they aren’t reporting them? Or are the schools somehow truly avoiding spread from the surrounding community?

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Without the federal government monitoring coronavirus in schools, it’s basically impossible to know. We need federal standards of reporting and tracking in order to have an even remotely accurate picture of how the pandemic is playing out in classrooms across the country.