We Still Don’t Know How Many COVID Cases Are In American Schools

We Still Don’t Know How Many COVID Cases Are In American Schools
Photo: DavidCarpio, Shutterstock

Sending children back to in-person schooling in the U.S. during an epidemic is an experiment of unprecedented proportions. The results could be a disaster; none of us here will be surprised if all the schools close again. But it’s starting to look like we might not even know if and when outbreaks are spreading at schools in America.

The New York Times reports that only 12 states have made public information about COVID cases at the school or district level. Some states only publish that data on a statewide basis, and others don’t track it at all. So we are running a giant experiment on our kids and we don’t even know if it’s failing?

The problems are layered. First, there is no coherent pandemic response or data tracking on a federal level. The NYT is doing its best to gather scraps of data, as is the National Education Association, which has built its own tracker from volunteer-submitted news stories.

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Second, most schools are not requiring surveillance testing that might help them learn how many students or staff have COVID. Many testing sites won’t test children, and not every parent can afford to spend hours or days seeking out one that will. I’d bet money that only a tiny percentage of kids with fevers and coughs will ever get tested, their parents assuming or hoping that they probably just have a cold.

And then there’s the fact that a parent who has a kid with COVID may be stuck. What do you do if you have to go to work and you don’t want to drop the kid off with Grandma? A health officer in Wisconsin told the local news station that “never in [her] wildest dreams” did she imagine parents would knowingly send their COVID-positive kids to school — but of they did.

Not collecting and publishing data on cases of COVID in schools is a failure on multiple levels, too. We won’t always know which schools have outbreaks, or if we do find out, it may be far later in the game. And without this information to learn from, other districts and states won’t be able to learn from the very experiment they’re conducting. For example, does hybrid instruction reduce the chances of spreading COVID, or does it increase the risk due to the multiple child-care options that parents must cobble together? Does a COVID outbreak in a school tend to spark larger outbreaks in the community?

It’s a shame that we don’t have this information and won’t have the chance to use it to make better decisions about how and when we should be sending our children back to school. Once again, the people we’ve trusted with our safety haven’t been keeping us safe, nor providing us enough information to make informed decisions to keep ourselves safe.

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