At least once a week, Emily Oster receives a message from a state official seeking help on coronavirus outbreaks in schools.
For months, she’s been compiling data many of them haven’t.
Oster, an economist at Brown University in Rhode Island, is assembling one of the nation’s largest publicly available databases on coronavirus and safety strategies in schools, gleaned from school district reports posted online and from submissions to the website where the database is kept. But it’s far from complete.
“Schools are opening and yet we don’t seem to have any coordinated way to collect and share information about what’s working, what’s not working, how risky are schools,” Oster said.
Neither the federal Department of Education nor a majority of states, including Washington, are publicly logging coronavirus-related information, aside from a handful that are beginning to tackle this challenge.
In Washington, at least 110 children or adults have contracted the virus through school outbreaks since the start of the pandemic, according to a state Department of Health document — a tiny fraction of the 160,000 confirmed cases that have been recorded statewide this year. But because reporting is so poor, there may be many more. And state officials can’t, or won’t, say where those cases occurred.
State education officials cannot even say how many of Washington’s 1.1 million students are learning in-person, and how many are studying at home.
In failing to collect data or to show the public what they know, state and federal agencies are missing out on rigorous experiments to find how to control the virus in school buildings. They’re falling flat at reassuring parents and teachers that schools are safe. And they are coming up short on measuring the amount of learning that’s being lost in this most unusual school year.
“We’re missing a huge opportunity here to be studying all of these things,” said Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s, who has written in favor of reopening school buildings. “We shouldn’t be waiting for kids to go back. If we had started [collecting data] in the fall or in the spring, we could be deploying best practices now.”
Collecting and sharing school-related coronavirus data will better equip families for when they have to decide whether to send their children to school, experts and parents say, and build trust in school communities at a time of heightened disagreements about safety.
“We want to see the data, period,” said Tiesha Clark, a parent of Federal Way students and family engagement manager at the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit that aids seven school districts in South King County, one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse areas of the state. “We want accurate, holistic information. Not just for COVID … but for everything. And we want space for families to ask questions about it, too.”
Oster’s efforts — supported by a handful of her colleagues and grant funding — have landed her at the center of the school-reopening debate raging across much of the U.S. She says that governments — the federal government, in particular — should be leading this work.
“Posting [data] publicly at the state level is really important for public trust,” Oster said. “For people to think, ‘My state is paying attention to this, somebody is on top of it, they are reporting things out that are real and helpful and they care about health.’ ”
“Data black hole”
Studies show that that children can contract and spread coronavirus. Recent data from Washington state suggests 60% of cases here are in people younger than 40, with at least 19% of cases among those 19 and younger.
In Washington state, officials have recorded at least 42 school outbreaks, defined as spread among two or more people, since the start of the pandemic. The state has logged 110 cases linked to these outbreaks so far, half of which were among students aged 17 and younger. None of them resulted in hospitalizations or deaths — at least not as far as the state is aware.
And, anecdotally, we know remote learning isn’t working for many students across the state.
But missing are important pieces that could help steer policy makers and school leaders.
Nearly every day, the state Department of Health (DOH) reports how many new cases have been detected by county, how many deaths, how many hospitalizations. Yet we don’t know consistently where or when school outbreaks occur. State officials haven’t released this information and couldn’t quickly provide it at The Seattle Times’ request.
We also don’t know the total number of coronavirus cases among staff and students that are tied specifically to exposure in schools, or how well schools are implementing mitigation strategies to protect against outbreaks when they reopen.
The system for reporting outbreaks has significant challenges. Local health agencies, which investigate the outbreaks, may not always give the state updated information on outcomes. They can also take a while to report the outbreaks.
“When we interview cases, it is often extremely difficult to determine with certainty where the individual was infected,” a DOH spokesperson wrote in an email. “People often have more than one potential exposure, and they may not remember all their activities in the 14 days before becoming ill or may not want to share all their activities with us.”
Other states, such as Utah, Texas, Rhode Island and Illinois, report cases in schools on their health department websites. In an emailed response, Utah officials wrote: “We strive to provide as much data as possible so things are transparent and the public and decision makers have access to the information they need to make policy decisions.”
Utah and Washington both collect information on cases in schools in the same way: through reports from local health agencies. But Utah’s coronavirus data page includes a separate tab for schools, where the public can see cumulative case counts for students and teachers by school district. It also includes charts showing the infection rate in elementary, middle and high school-aged kids.
While teachers in Washington state are taking stock of their students’ well-being and academic abilities, there’s no formal effort to collect information on which students are regressing. National standardized tests have been postponed. In the summer, each district had to certify to the state that it had an assessment in place, but each one approached the task differently. State standardized tests are still scheduled for the spring.
For data the state’s education department is responsible for collecting — such as learning loss and distance learning strategies — officials say they’re constrained by procedures that allow them to collect information only once each year.
“Districts have the best sense, and honestly, that’s where it should be because they have the best way of responding to those needs immediately,” said Michaela Miller, deputy superintendent at the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Oster’s database helps fill in some of these gaps — particularly questions related to COVID-19 cases and mitigation strategies. In general, the data suggests that coronavirus incidence is lower in elementary schools, and cases in schools tend to reflect levels of the virus in the community.
But Oster’s data is crowdsourced, and isn’t nationally representative. It also doesn’t yet contain information on race, income levels and many other important traits of students, staff and schools. Also missing is data on distance learning or reopening strategies.
“Dr. Oster’s work and that data has been really foundational and really helpful,” said Bach Mai Dolly Nguyen, assistant professor of education at Oregon State University, who is working on a project that aims to help integrate public health and education data. “What it probably points us to, is we have a very stunted view of comprehensive data generally on COVID from a national standpoint. And that’s particularly true when we’re talking about our understanding across racial and ethnic lines.”
As for who is responsible for collecting this information? “That’s at the heart of this data black hole that we’re in,” Nguyen said. “We’re just in this place where everyone is saying we need to collect data, and yet, where does the political will come from?”
In the dark
Washington’s education department has a history of proactively collecting data, Nguyen said, and has a strong infrastructure to canvass districts for pandemic-related information, particularly related to race and ethnicity.
“Washington state should be and can be a real leader,” she said.
From the DOH’s internal documents, it seems that officials are collecting at least some data on coronavirus in schools.
But unlike its top-down approach on reopening other parts of the economy, the state has left the majority of decision-making on reopening school buildings up to local superintendents, school boards and county health officials — a governing style known as “local control.”
As a result, there isn’t much of an incentive for the state to share data on outbreaks and cases in schools — especially with most students staying at home for now. According to the state, more than half of the 1.1 million public school kids are in districts where only up to 10% of students are receiving in-person instruction. Districts that serve larger percentages of their students in school buildings, mostly on the east side of the state, are voluntarily posting case data and other information on their websites, such as Spokane Public Schools.
But if more districts begin to reopen, as they have in other parts of the country, thousands of families will want to see the data that could help them decide whether to send a child back to school. In the summer, parents say they were given little information before they had to indicate their preference for in-person or remote learning.
Kendra Tampico, a mother from Renton, said the survey she got from her school district over the summer was very short.
“It was like, ‘What are you gonna pick?’ It was around three questions long,” said Tampico. “And I thought, ‘That’s it?’ It was such an important survey.”
When the opportunity arises again, parents will want to know the details of a school’s safety plan, clear messaging from district officials about why they are moving in a certain direction and data on outbreaks and cases in all schools.
“We cannot continue to be siloed like this,” said Dehlia Winbush, a parent in Kent. One district is using one set of safety and remote learning protocols and another is doing something completely different, she said. “We need to have a big town hall.”