There's No Federal Tracking System For Outbreaks In The Schools, And That's F*cked Up

by Nick Ash

Back in the summer (it feels like 6 or 7 years ago), the big question was Will they open the schools? Well, there were many questions: When will they open the schools? How will they open the schools? Who will actually go? On one hand, you had some teachers and parents (and public health experts) worried that every classroom in America would turn into a tiny superspreader event. On the other hand, you had government leaders thoughtfully tweeting “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!” (and, as we know, caps lock is the hallmark of a well-reasoned argument).

It became clear that schools would indeed reopen one way or another, and I, as a teacher and a parent, had choices to make. Do I go back? Do I send my kids? As much as I wanted our family to resume some semblance of normalcy, I made the decision to wait. Though there were some early signs that COVID-19 is less transmissible by children (especially younger children), there just wasn’t a lot of data about rates of infection in schools. I figured, by the end of fall, we’d have some numbers and I could make a more informed decision.

So what was the result? Are children getting the virus at school? Did school openings lead to outbreaks all over the country, or not?

The fact is that we still don’t really know, because there is no federal tracking system for COVID cases in the schools.

Sure, I get a weekly email from the schools (my kids’ schools, and mine) telling me how many new cases they found. (It’s usually about two or three per week, sometimes more.) Other people in other communities are getting similar updates. But no one is officially tabulating all that information and compiling a nationwide database. No one is analyzing that data to produce real, evidence-based conclusions about the safety of keeping schools open in a pandemic.

Coronavirus numbers in the U.S. have shot up since September (we recently hit a grim milestone of 100,000 new cases in a single day), and you could easily draw the conclusion that the schools are causing outbreaks. But there were lots of other reopenings in the past few months: offices, bars, restaurants. Where is the virus being transmitted? We will only know what steps to take — as individuals, and as a community — if we have specific answers.

If we’re looking for evidence of COVID deaths traceable to schools, the news provides plenty of examples: a handful of teachers, a boy in eighth grade, a girl in kindergarten, etc. But should this data alter our original assumption, that student-to-student transmission is relatively uncommon? How uncommon are we talking — 1 percent? 5 percent? It’s impossible to say based solely on anecdotal evidence. These examples need to be placed in some larger context so we can see the trends.

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In the absence of a federal tracking system, some researchers have attempted to track the COVID cases popping up in schools around the country. That’s great, but they are severely limited in terms of their access to data. Some school districts post their numbers publicly, while others choose only to share privately within their communities, citing privacy concerns. It’s understandable that schools should be concerned about privacy, but it means we have no way of assessing nationwide trends. We’re stumbling around in the dark, just seeing our own communities’ numbers and whatever is reported in the media, drawing our own conclusions without real data to guide us.

The government is uniquely positioned to do this data collection and analysis. If school districts don’t want to post their COVID numbers publicly, fine, but they have to report them to their local Departments of Health. Unlike private institutions like universities and hospitals, the federal government has the ability to collect that data so public health experts can analyze it. For the government not to do this is an abdication of responsibility.

Different schools all over the country have adopted different safety procedures. Some strictly require masking, while others are “mask-optional.” Some schools are taking social distance really seriously, reducing class sizes, and rerouting hallway traffic patterns; others have, more or less, gone back to normal. It’s a shame that we don’t have national safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, but at least we could be tracking this data to find out how well the mitigation efforts are working.

Which school districts had the most outbreaks, and what characteristics did these schools have in common? What kind of masks did the schools require? How were the kids situated at lunchtime? Is there some other significant factor, perhaps even one we hadn’t previously considered? Again, there’s no way to know if you don’t collect the data.

There’s also a lack of consistent protocols from state to state in terms of testing and contact tracing. (I understand that the federal government can’t always mandate what the individual states will do, but they could still establish national standards and encourage/incentivize states’ following the standards.) So in some communities, when a parent or aunt or uncle or grandparent gets sick, they can theoretically trace it to a child being exposed to the virus at school. Children are more likely to be asymptomatic, which only makes it more probable that they are spreading it to family members without anyone realizing how it happened. If the federal government would track and trace these cases, we’d all have a better idea of what is happening in the schools and in our communities.

My kids have been studying remotely since September, and next week I get to decide whether they’ll go back in January or stay home for another semester. With U.S. cases on the rise, keeping them home seems like a no-brainer. But if we had a semester’s worth of nationwide data, showing that this mitigation effort works while that one has been less effective, or that the rate of transmission in schools has been X percent, etc. — more signal, less noise – I’d feel like I was making a more informed decision.

I’m hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration will show more interest in collecting and publishing data that we — as parents and as citizens — can use to make informed decisions. The people have spoken, and the country is ready to fire this federal government… but as far as tracking coronavirus outbreaks in the schools is concerned, this government already quit.