Why State Data on COVID-19 in Schools Doesn't Tell the Full Story
Measuring the impact of COVID-19 in New Hampshire schools is a major concern for officials at the state and local level, not to mention families and school staff.
Districts are keeping track of infections and absenteeism due to the virus. And the state says it is too, on its coronavirus dashboard. But the data reported at the state level is sometimes at odds with what schools say is actually going on. NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson spoke with All Things Considered host Peter Biello about the data and what's behind some of the discrepancies.
Peter Biello: So first, can you explain what data the state is collecting and sharing about the coronavirus in schools?
Sarah Gibson: Sure. So the big one is the number of COVID-19 cases in schools. That's current cases as well as recovered cases, and whether or not there's a cluster in that school building. The other things being collected are measurements of "school impact" of COVID-19, things like absenteeism of students or staff capacity — if, say, a bunch of staff have to be on quarantine and can't be in the school to teach. Those details are supposed to be reported on a daily basis by schools. And, in theory, this is really great information to have because these are all the numbers used by schools to decide when to go remote.
Peter Biello: But there have been some concerns raised about whether the state's tally is accurate. What are those concerns?
Sarah Gibson: So a lot of districts at this point have developed their own dashboards that you can see on their websites, and they're often pretty different than what the state is showing on their dashboard. The concern is that what the state is saying [about] the actual cases just isn't accurate. And then if you burrow further into the state's dashboard, you see there's a bunch of "N/A" or out-of-date data. And Gov. Chris Sununu was actually asked about this yesterday. And here's what he said:
Gov. Chris Sununu, at Dec. 10 press conference: "The data you see on the dashboard is updated daily. It's correct. This idea that there's false data or false information out there - that's absolutely wrong. And nobody should be saying that. It's a very dangerous thing to be putting out there, because what they're doing is really trying to undermine the validity and the security of a system. We've worked very, very hard not just to get up and running, but to get it right."
Sarah Gibson: And the Governor implied that a lot of this criticism of the state's data is coming from teachers unions.
Peter Biello: So is the Governor correct that this data is accurate?
Sarah Gibson: So, the data isn't totally thorough, nor is it accurate in all cases. This is not for lack of effort by state health officials. Some of them have actually acknowledged that there is a discrepancy between the state school dashboard and what's actually happening on the ground. But they say there are a couple good reasons for this. The major one is that there is a lag in reporting cases, so your principal at your school is going to know way faster than the state's going to know that a teacher tested positive. So that data will be available locally, but not necessarily on the state's dashboard for up to a week.
But the really big thing, Peter, is that the state's school COVID-19 dashboard only reports in-school infections. So if a school went remote because there was a COVID-19 case within the school building and then a bunch of other kids tested positive afterwards while they were remote, that is not going to show up in the state's dashboard.
(The images below show an example of how the numbers can differ between state and local sources.)
Peter Biello: And what about the other information on the dashboard, things like absenteeism?
Sarah Gibson: The state says at this point, about 60 percent of schools are filling out things like the absenteeism survey on a regular basis. But when you go to the state dashboard, it's still a patchwork and sometimes the information is really out of date. And in other cases, districts say, "Look, we are trying to fill out the absentee data, but it's not showing up on the state dashboard." So there might be some technical glitches.
But in regards to absenteeism, this is actually a really, really important data point for us to have because it's going to tell us things like how many kids are just not showing up to school, whether or not schools are able to connect to a large percentage of vulnerable students who have kind of dropped off the map. But if we don't have accurate regular data that schools are providing that is showing up, that presents a lot of kind of long-term challenges for us to even understand how pandemic education is going.
Peter Biello: So, Sarah, at the end of the day, I mean, what's the big deal if the state's numbers maybe don't match up with the district's count? Is it just a math problem here?
Sarah Gibson: It is a math problem, but I would argue it has a pretty big consequence because school leaders are making these huge, often very contentious decisions about when to go remote and close their buildings and disrupt the lives of many parents. But if the state is saying one thing about the data and a district says another thing, it can be really confusing for the public and potentially erode parents' and others' confidence in these systems. And we are in this public health crisis in which there needs to be a certain level of public trust in institutions, including schools and the state health department, so the concern is that the dashboard and the discrepancies between schools in the state really causes some confusion and in the end undermines trust. I will say the state really does want to improve its communication with districts so that their dashboard is accurate and is helpful, so hopefully that will improve over time.
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