If science is to be the guiding force regarding a response to the coronavirus pandemic — including whether or not to open schools — information must be available. Science without data amounts to speculation.
But in Washington and most other states, statistics about the spread of COVID-19 in schools is difficult to find. “School 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,” Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University in Rhode Island, told The Seattle Times.
In Clark County, the public health office includes a list of coronavirus cases related to schools. It details the date a test was administered; whether the infected person is a student, staff member or visitor; and whether they likely were infected at the school, as determined through interviews.
Throughout Washington, schools have not emerged as a driver for increasing COVID-19 cases. In Clark County, where more than 9,000 infections have been confirmed, 15 are attributed to exposures in schools.
That would be important information when discussing how and when to reopen schools — if it were reliable and if we knew how many students are spending time physically in school. But according to an article in The Seattle Times: “Neither the federal Department of Education nor a majority of states, including Washington, are publicly logging coronavirus-related information.”
That extends beyond schools, with officials often reporting a lack of cooperation from the public. But the lack of data regarding the spread of coronavirus in schools obfuscates discussion about returning students to class. It also represents a dichotomy in how Washington has fashioned its response to COVID-19.
While state officials have adopted a top-down approach in ordering business closures, they largely have left the issue of schools to local districts. In Clark County, districts have opened for limited in-class learning, mostly for kindergartners and students with special needs.
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that remote learning is not working for many students and parents. Efforts to further open schools should be pursued, but those efforts should be bolstered by evidence showing that it can be done safely.
Data show that young students appear less likely than older students to contract the virus, suffer severe symptoms or spread it to others. The Mayo Clinic reports: “Research suggests that children younger than ages 10 to 14 are less likely to become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 compared to people age 20 and older. Hospitalization rates for children are also much lower than for adults.” In Washington, about 20 percent of coronavirus cases have been in people 19 and younger.
As a general parameter, that is instructive. But it does little to inform parents about the spread of the virus in their community as they ponder whether to send their children to school when possible. Such localized data would not only inform parents but would build trust between decision-makers and the public — a trust that is increasingly frayed.
As Oster said: “Posting (data) publicly at the state level is really important for public trust. For people to think, ‘My state is paying attention to this, somebody is on top of it, they are reporting things that are real and helpful and they care about health.’ ”
Part of demonstrating that concern about health is to provide data that allows the community to weigh the science and play a role in deciding to open schools.