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Coronavirus is spreading in schools, but the federal government isn't keeping count

Researchers say the absence of a comprehensive accounting is hampering efforts to identify which safety practices can best protect students and teachers.
Image: Students are seen in the Jefferson High School parking lot as school started amid coronavirus disease (COVID-19) jitters in Jefferson
Students walk together in the Jefferson High School parking lot in Jefferson, Georgia, as school started on July 31. Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters file

Coronavirus cases are already surfacing in K-12 schools that have reopened, but the federal government is not tracking these outbreaks, and some states are not publicly reporting them, making it more difficult to determine how the virus is spreading, experts say.

Scores of students and staff members have been quarantined because of potential COVID-19 exposure in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Indiana, among other states.

But there is no official national tally of school-linked COVID-19 cases, and some states are not reporting how many outbreaks have occurred or how many students and staff members have been infected. Instead, they are leaving it up to local officials to decide which information to make public and which information to share more narrowly with affected students and families. Researchers say the absence of a comprehensive accounting is hampering efforts to identify which safety practices can best prevent cases in schools from spreading.

“Without good data that tracks cases over time — and shows how one case turns into many cases — there's just no way to answer that question,” said Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and co-founder of COVID Explained, a team of researchers studying the pandemic. “In January, we'll be in the same position that we are in now, and kids still won't be in school.”

At least nine states — including Alabama, California and Pennsylvania — are tracking school-linked coronavirus cases and outbreaks, but won’t make this data public, according to an NBC News tally of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Many of these states cited privacy concerns for withholding the data. Some claimed that coronavirus data on schools was not critical to protecting the broader public, and said their policies might change in the future if there was a clear public health reason for providing such information.

At least 15 other states have begun publishing data on school-based outbreaks, or have committed to doing so, according to the NBC News survey. Seven states said they were still deliberating their plans, and the remainder did not respond to a request for comment.

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Even among the states that have committed to sharing data, there are major gaps and inconsistencies in reporting policies. Each state sets its own definition for an “outbreak” — usually a certain number of cases linked to a single site. Most said they would not specify the district or school that was affected, citing privacy concerns. And only a handful of states said they would report the actual numbers of infected students and staff.

A spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the agency was not tracking school-based COVID-19 cases, and the Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Beyond the researchers’ concerns, educators and parents are worried about whether they’ll be told about positive cases that could threaten their safety — not only at their schools, but in neighboring areas as well. School administrators fear the lack of comprehensive data could feed unnecessary panic by making it hard to determine whether a news story about an individual school outbreak is an outlier or a sign of impending danger.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called on all states to gather and release this data, since the federal government is not doing so.

“The Trump administration has shamefully tried to keep America in the dark on COVID-19, so it's doubly important for states to ignore the political bluster and commit to delivering the truth about the virus' spread,” Weingarten said in a statement in response to NBC News’ findings. “While some school districts are doing their best to inform teachers, families and children, we're hoping states get with the program and deliver the transparency they deserve as schools gradually begin to reopen their doors.​"

Image: Hawaii school
Hand sanitizer attached to a desk in a classroom at Aikahi Elementary School in Kailua, Hawaii, on July 28. Jennifer Sinco Kelleher / AP file

In the absence of comprehensive state or federal data, some researchers are stepping in to gather information themselves.

Oster, the Brown University economist, is working with the School Superintendents Association, which represents school officials, to develop a dashboard that collects the latest information directly from individual districts to help inform administrators and academics. It would include not just the number of positive cases in schools, but also the size of the student body, how many students and staff are in quarantine at a given moment, and changes in cases over time.

The goal is to track infections, and also to discern quickly which regions and schools are faring better at preventing and containing outbreaks and whether their safety procedures were responsible for the difference. Such information could also help parents decide whether to send their children to school or keep them at home for remote learning, Oster said.

“The only evidence that’s really going to be informative is what happens when we open schools,” she said. “Whether it’s the right decision or not, once schools are open it would be a shame not to use that as an opportunity to learn how to do this.”

Other institutions are also trying to fill in gaps with their own reporting. The Indianapolis Star launched a searchable database of positive cases at schools after the state government started the school year without making the information public. (Indiana’s Health Department said it is working on a public dashboard for school-linked cases, but did not provide a timeline or details on what data would be included.)

One Kansas teacher even created a Google spreadsheet for educators and parents to track news reports of cases and quarantines in schools.

Image: Hollywood High School Students And Teachers Prepare For Coming School Year
Aracelia Gasper Andres performs a contactless temperature check at Hollywood High School in Hollywood, Calif., on Aug. 13.Rodin Eckenroth / Getty Images

While other countries have reopened schools sooner and more widely than the U.S., they also have not comprehensively tracked cases and outbreaks among children, which makes it harder to offer guidance to schools in the U.S., said Annette C. Anderson, an assistant professor and deputy director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University. International studies of COVID-19 spread in classrooms have been limited in scope, typically in countries where the pandemic has been less prevalent than in the U.S.

“We’re only beginning to start understanding the transmission of COVID in children,” Anderson said. “It’s important for us to have a great assemblance of data.”

According to Anderson, researchers have run into trouble in finding data on children that uses consistent standards. A recent American Academy of Pediatrics study of childhood infections noted that states often define “children” differently in their tracking, with some listing everyone under age 14, for example, and others placing the cutoff as high as 20.

This lack of granular information can matter a lot, because one question scientists urgently hope to resolve is the degree to which younger and older children are affected differently by the virus.

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Without a more thorough snapshot of cases around the country, researchers say it’s hard to know what to make of individual outbreaks. In northern Alabama, local media reported four coronavirus cases in Morgan County’s school system last week, prompting 25 students and staff members to be quarantined.

A spokeswoman for Morgan County Schools said she could not provide further details about where the cases occurred, or whether it was students or teachers who were infected. Both the county and state health departments declined to release further information.

“The Alabama Department of Public Health and its local county health departments do not disclose information related to notifiable disease investigations as a matter of policy and privacy,” Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer for the Alabama department of health, said in an email.

By comparison, Georgia’s Cherokee County is providing regular updates on the number of staff members and students who have tested positive and the name of their school, as well as the number in quarantine because of potential exposure. The county’s schools have 120 active coronavirus cases among students and staff, according to the latest report released Friday, and more than 1,100 have been quarantined since the county’s schools reopened on Aug. 3.

Image: Supporters of school district's decision to reopen schools rally in Canton
A mother and daughter join other supporters of the Cherokee County School District's decision to reopen schools to students outside the district's headquarters on Aug. 11. Dustin Chambers / Reuters

But the school district stressed that such reporting was voluntary. “It’s worth noting that this level of public reporting is not required in any way, but is keeping with our longstanding commitment to transparency,” Barbara Jacoby, a spokeswoman for Cherokee County School District, wrote in an email.

Danny Carlson, director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said he’s heard from principals who want to see national data to get a sense of whether outbreaks like the one in Cherokee County are anomalies.

”It’s really hard otherwise, because take the Georgia example — is that noise? Is it a one-off thing? Is it because of mask requirements?” Carlson said. “I think people are confused — they want to know if this is a trend or not.”