How are coronavirus cases in schools being reported? ‘It’s a hodge-podgey mess.’
Some public health officials and experts say the coronavirus does not appear to be spreading in local K-12 schools that have reopened in Pennsylvania. But data is hard to come by.
About a month into the school year, some public health officials and experts say the coronavirus does not appear to be spreading inside local K-12 schools that have reopened in Pennsylvania.
But it’s unclear how many students or school staff have contracted the virus. Pennsylvania health officials aren’t specifying cases associated with schools — unlike New Jersey, where the state has a public dashboard announcing school outbreaks. County health departments, which are conducting contact tracing, haven’t identified which schools have cases.
And Pennsylvania schools aren’t required to inform families about cases, resulting in mixed levels of notification.
In the Neshaminy School District, for instance, parents at one middle school received an email last month stating a student had tested positive. In addition to providing county health officials names of “close contacts” — anyone within six feet of the infectious student for more than 15 minutes — school leaders said they would also notify parents if their children were in class with the student, “in the name of transparency.”
At Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield Township, parents were notified Thursday that a Delaware County Intermediate Unit staffer working at the school and a school employee had tested positive. The school said it contacted health officials, who agreed that no one else at the school needed to quarantine or be tested, “as there is no evidence of exposure.”
There’s tremendous variation in how states, counties, and districts across the United States report COVID inside schools. It ranges from virtually no information to districts providing daily, publicly accessible case counts.
“Generally, this is a hodge-podgey mess,” said Emily Oster, an economist, Brown University professor, and cofounder of COVID Explained, a database of resources that includes a national COVID-19 School Response Dashboard.
Some parents want more comprehensive information. Yvette White, who has a senior and sophomore in Central Bucks, was glad parents have been repeatedly informed of positive cases since schools began reopening Sept. 30. But rather than piecemeal notifications, White hoped for an overall breakdown of cases by school, and numbers of people quarantined as a result.
As parents, “the responsibility to choose to send our children to school rests squarely on us,” White said. “Knowing the specific positive case numbers, knowing the number of students being quarantined at any given time, having all of that information — it allows us to make smarter decisions.”
District spokesperson Angela Linch said parents were being notified of each case, including the name of the school. She directed questions about contact tracing to the county Health Department.
The shutdown of schools this spring served as one of the first indicators of how severely life would be disrupted by the new virus, with fears that keeping school buildings open would further the pandemic’s spread.
Now as more schools around Philadelphia look to resume in-person instruction, there are scarce data showing to what extent the virus has emerged in local schools that have reopened.
Experts say early signs are good. According to Oster’s database, which covers about 167,000 students and 54,000 staff in school buildings nationwide, the infection rate for the two-week period ending Sept. 27 was 1.3 per 1,000 for children and 2.2 per 1,000 for adults.
“Schools do not, in fact, appear to be a major spreader of COVID-19,” she wrote in the Atlantic.
Oster, in concert with several national education organizations, hopes her database, which allows public, private, and charter schools to submit information anonymously, helps parents and school leaders make informed decisions.
“In the aggregate, we need to know how risky are schools,” said Oster. “Not just your specific schools, but in general, what are we seeing?”
Even though case levels are rising in the nation’s Northeast, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab recommends that schools continue with plans to reopen. The PolicyLab’s director, Dr. David Rubin, said he had been in contact with county health departments, and there has been little evidence of in-school transmission.
School safety protocols, including mask requirements and social distancing, “have seemed to hold up well,” Rubin said. He said that while there had been “some cases” among students and staff, “it appears that they’re acquiring it outside of school.”
“What matters is linked transmission during the school day,” rather than numbers of cases, Rubin said, adding that he didn’t want to “over-inundate people with information that doesn’t relate to their individual risk.”
Pennsylvania health officials say they aren’t maintaining a list of cases by school. “We’re looking at community transmission. We know it isn’t just one sector of the society that is contributing to an outbreak,” said April Hutcheson, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
In Philadelphia and its suburbs, county health departments are notified of positive coronavirus tests and perform contact tracing.
County health departments provided different degrees of detail to questions about school cases. Only Montgomery County provided a number — saying it had investigated more than 50, in private and public schools and day cares.
Both Montgomery and Bucks Counties said they had not documented any instances this fall of the virus being transmitted at school. “We have yet to see anyone get COVID from a school exposure,” said Dr. David Damsker, director of Bucks County’s Health Department. He said the county has "had cases in pretty much every district” but declined to provide numbers, citing privacy concerns.
In Chester and Delaware Counties, meanwhile, Chester County health director Jeanne Casner — who serves both counties — said that there had been transmission in schools and that students and staff had been quarantined. But she did not provide numbers of cases, saying data were still pending.
In Philadelphia, health department officials say they aren’t tracking cases by schools, though spokesperson James Garrow said 14 have had to implement quarantines since Sept. 2.
New Jersey has begun reporting school outbreaks, which it defines as two or more cases of the virus within a 14-day period among students or staff who have been in contact at school but not in other settings.
Since September, the state has had 16 school outbreaks, with 58 cases linked to those outbreaks, according to data Thursday. (Burlington and Gloucester Counties accounted for 16 of the 58 linked cases.) The state is publishing the data on a dashboard it announced Sept. 30, when it had 11 outbreaks.
“Those are pretty darned good results,” Gov. Phil Murphy said of the 11 outbreaks, noting that the state has more than 3,000 schools.
The state doesn’t identify school districts where the outbreaks occurred, and some districts have declined to confirm cases. That makes it difficult to know when cases are reported unless there is a shutdown or parents or staff publicize the information.
At Cardinal O’Hara in Springfield, the disclosure of two positive cases prompted questions about notification. The infected school employee had been on campus as recently as Tuesday, the school’s principal told parents. But they said no one was exposed to the person, meaning no one required quarantine or testing.
“How do you come to work and have no contact with anyone?” said one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. The school directed questions Friday to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which referred to the principal’s letter.
“In every case involving a positive COVID-19 diagnosis within a school, the local school administration has communicated broadly with its entire community regarding the circumstance, advice provided by the health department, and the plan of action moving forward,” spokesperson Ken Gavin said in an email. He said the archdiocese had “experienced positive cases of COVID-19 in both elementary and secondary schools since the resumption of classes,” but declined to provide specifics.
Pending legislation in Harrisburg would mandate that staff, employees, contractors, and parents be informed when someone within their school building tests positive.
Some local districts have made information public. The Washington Township School District in Gloucester County delayed in-person instruction at its high school and an elementary school in September after three staff members at the two schools tested positive.
Days later, the high school’s in-person reopening was delayed again after a large gathering of seniors to honor a classmate killed in a car accident. A staff member and several students who play sports also tested positive for the coronavirus, the district said.
“We are committed to doing all that we can to keep our school community safe as we continue to work toward opening all our schools. It has been a significant challenge,” Superintendent Joseph N. Bollendorf said in a letter posted on the district’s website.
In Montgomery County, the Wissahickon School District is sharing case counts at school board meetings.
Wissahickon, which began the year in person for K-5 students, has had four students and staff members test positive, but has not had to quarantine anyone or close buildings, said spokesperson Kristen Rawlings. Still, the district wants “to make our families and community feel confident that they know what’s going on,” she said.
Staff writers Melanie Burney and Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.