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 wont 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.
Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak
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.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Beyond the researchers concerns, educators and parents are worried about whether theyll 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."
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 thats really going to be informative is what happens when we open schools, she said. Whether its 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. (Indianas 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.
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.
Were only beginning to start understanding the transmission of COVID in children, Anderson said. Its 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.
Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak
Without a more thorough snapshot of cases around the country, researchers say its hard to know what to make of individual outbreaks. In northern Alabama, local media reported four coronavirus cases in Morgan Countys 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, Georgias 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 countys 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 countys schools reopened on Aug. 3.
But the school district stressed that such reporting was voluntary. Its 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 hes heard from principals who want to see national data to get a sense of whether outbreaks like the one in Cherokee County are anomalies.
Its 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.
- Trump Embraces Fringe Theories on Protests and the Coronavirus - The New York Times - August 31st, 2020
- Elites are flouting coronavirus restrictions -- and that could hurt us all - CNN - August 31st, 2020
- Governor Cuomo Announces New Record High Number of COVID-19 Tests Reported to New York State - ny.gov - August 31st, 2020
- How Italy's 'father of the swabs' fought the coronavirus - Science Magazine - August 31st, 2020
- Alaska coronavirus Q&A: How are people here getting COVID-19? And what's the deal with testing numbers? - Anchorage Daily News - August 31st, 2020
- Coronavirus news of the week (VIDEO) - Live Science - August 31st, 2020
- A case of coronavirus reinfection shows the complexities of the pandemic - The Verge - August 31st, 2020
- New drool-based tests are replacing the dreaded coronavirus nasal swab - Science Magazine - August 31st, 2020
- How Minnesota's biggest beef producer is weathering the coronavirus - Minneapolis Star Tribune - August 31st, 2020
- When the Threat of Eviction Meets the Threat of Coronavirus - The New York Times - August 31st, 2020
- Coronavirus worries force election officials to get creative - Wink News - August 31st, 2020
- This Trawlers Haul: Evidence That Antibodies Block the Coronavirus - The New York Times - August 20th, 2020
- Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today - The New York Times - August 20th, 2020
- NIH imposes 'outrageous' conditions on resuming coronavirus grant targeted by Trump - Science Magazine - August 20th, 2020
- What you need to know about coronavirus on Wednesday, August 19 - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- Coronavirus updates: University of North Carolina temporarily suspends fall sports; Pope warns against the rich getting vaccine first - USA TODAY - August 20th, 2020
- If New Zealand's Covid-19 outbreak is 'terrible' like Trump says, then how bad is the rest of the world? - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- Faster test results and 'robust' immune response may offer hope of curbing the pandemic, experts say - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- Why Pooled Testing for the Coronavirus Isn't Working - The New York Times - August 20th, 2020
- Coronavirus outbreak linked to wedding reception in Maine - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- COVID-19 UPDATE: Gov. Justice hosts Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, to discuss West Virginia virus response - West... - August 20th, 2020
- COVID-19 Daily Update 8-19-2020 - West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources - August 20th, 2020
- A person with Covid-19 may have exposed others at a bar during Sturgis motorcycle rally - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- White House focus on oleandrin treatment for coronavirus would be 'nonsense,' experts say - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- August 19 evening update: The latest on the coronavirus and Maine - Bangor Daily News - August 20th, 2020
- Masks blunt the spread of coronavirus but not all are created equal - The Guardian - August 20th, 2020
- Opinion: There is a safe, healthy path forward from the ravages of the coronavirus - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - August 20th, 2020
- Few signs of collective mourning as the US tops 170,000 coronavirus deaths - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- Researchers hope this old-fashioned treatment will work for coronavirus - CNN - August 20th, 2020
- Older Children and the Coronavirus: A New Wrinkle in the Debate - The New York Times - August 20th, 2020
- Here's what's behind all those backlogged coronavirus cases across Texas - The Dallas Morning News - August 20th, 2020
- Potential Rising Income Streams and Equity Retirement Solutions - Dividend.com - August 10th, 2020
- Millions of America's working poor may lose out on key anti-poverty tax credit because of the pandemic - Chicago Reporter - August 10th, 2020
- Ive Witnessed the Decline of the Republican Party - The Atlantic - August 10th, 2020
- Pyxis Tankers Announces Financial Results for the Three and Six Months Ended June 30, 2020 - GlobeNewswire - August 10th, 2020
- Coronavirus live updates: 97,000 kids tested positive the last two weeks of July; college football faces decision time on fall season - USA TODAY - August 10th, 2020
- Breaking down the executive actions Trump signed on coronavirus relief - CNN - August 10th, 2020
- Brazil Reaches Milestone of More Than 100,000 Covid-19 Deaths and 3 Million Cases - The New York Times - August 10th, 2020
- Looking Beyond The Coronavirus Numbers As Plans Are Put In Place For Returning To School, Restaurants Face Restrictions - CBS Pittsburgh - August 10th, 2020
- August 9 update: The latest on the coronavirus and Maine - Bangor Daily News - August 10th, 2020
- Black and Hispanic children are impacted more severely by coronavirus, research shows - CNN - August 10th, 2020
- Why the Coronavirus Is More Likely to Superspread Than the Flu - The New York Times - August 10th, 2020
- Japan's coronavirus fatigue is fueling defiance in Tokyo, even as the case count rises - CNN - August 10th, 2020
- Hours of Talks on U.S. Coronavirus Relief End With No Deal - The New York Times - August 10th, 2020
- Nation hits 5 million coronavirus cases with few signs of slowing - NBC News - August 10th, 2020
- What you need to know about coronavirus Monday, Aug. 10 - KING5.com - August 10th, 2020
- Farm Workers Harvest Crops With Few Protections From The Coronavirus : Shots - Health News - NPR - August 10th, 2020
- COVID-19 Daily Update 8-9-2020 - West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources - August 10th, 2020
- Coronavirus updates: Trump's executive order on unemployment could take months to implement; hundreds quarantining in Ga. school district - USA TODAY - August 10th, 2020
- Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tests positive for coronavirus -- and then tests negative on second test - CNN - August 10th, 2020
- Inside the federal prison where three out of every four inmates have tested positive for coronavirus - CNN - August 10th, 2020
- Global deaths surpass 700,000; Vietnam reports further rise of infections - CNBC - August 10th, 2020
- Trump administration steps in as advocacy groups warn of Covid 'death panels' - POLITICO - August 10th, 2020
- Europe's biggest countries are seeing Covid surges -- but not this one - CNN - August 10th, 2020
- More than 97,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 in the last two weeks of July, report says - CNN - August 10th, 2020
- Mexicos Coronavirus Struggle Worsened by Fear of Hospitals - The New York Times - August 10th, 2020
- Study: 14 Face Masks, Here Are The Best, Worst For Covid-19 Coronavirus - Forbes - August 10th, 2020
- Coronavirus testing: How it works, why Utah's tests are down, and what's coming next? - Salt Lake Tribune - August 10th, 2020
- Your Hot-Weather Guide to Coronavirus, Air-Conditioning and Airflow - The New York Times - August 10th, 2020
- How San Francisco succeeded more than other U.S. cities in fighting the coronavirus - CNBC - August 10th, 2020
- 17 new coronavirus cases have been reported in Maine - Bangor Daily News - August 9th, 2020
- Everything you need to know about coronavirus in Arizona Aug. 9 - 12news.com KPNX - August 9th, 2020
- Coronavirus in N.Y.C.: Heres What Happened This Week - The New York Times - August 9th, 2020
- What you need to know about coronavirus Sunday, Aug. 9 - KING5.com - August 9th, 2020
- How fast is the coronavirus spreading (or not) in Philadelphia? Check this chart - Billy Penn - August 9th, 2020
- Coronavirus Live Updates: Latest News and Analysis - The New York Times - August 8th, 2020
- Americans are moving around too much and taking coronavirus with them, expert says - CNN - August 8th, 2020
- Fact Check: Will there be a coronavirus vaccine by November? - CNN - August 8th, 2020
- One man with coronavirus attending Ohio church service led to infection of 91 others - NBC News - August 8th, 2020
- What you need to know about coronavirus on Friday, August 7 - CNN - August 8th, 2020
- With Old Allies Turning Against Her, Birx Presses On Against the Coronavirus - The New York Times - August 8th, 2020
- Trump singles out Texas and Florida for help with coronavirus response - CNN - August 8th, 2020
- This Week in Coronavirus: July 31 to August 6 - Kaiser Family Foundation - August 8th, 2020
- St. Louis Cardinals have another series postponed because of positive coronavirus tests - CNN - August 8th, 2020
- At Europes Illegal Parties, Coronavirus Is the Last Thing on Anyones Mind - The New York Times - August 8th, 2020
- The Roach Unit is the only Texas prison reporting zero coronavirus cases - The Texas Tribune - August 8th, 2020
- Coronavirus in Oregon: 423 new infections and 9 deaths - oregonlive.com - August 8th, 2020
- Suspension Lifted of Georgia Student Who Posted Photos of Crowded Hall - The New York Times - August 8th, 2020
- 20 new coronavirus cases have been reported in Maine - Bangor Daily News - August 8th, 2020
- Saying goodbye to dying wife likely cost 90-year-old 'Romeo' his life. He had no regrets, family says. - USA TODAY - August 8th, 2020