Analysis: Will parents get the K-12 coronavirus data they need and deserve?

Starting Friday, a new state database will report coronavirus cases in Idaho’s K-12 system.

When this webpage goes live, parents will be able to track the pandemic in their neighborhood schools.

Sight unseen — and site unseen — here’s an easy prediction. This page will be a step in the right direction. It almost has to be. That’s because, right now, coronavirus case reporting is a disjointed, frustrating mess.

Two districts, two different approaches

Parents who send their kids to northwest Boise’s Capital High School know that there has been one positive case tied to the school.

Parents who send their kids to Centennial High School — also in northwest Boise, four miles or so from Capital — are in the dark.

That’s because Capital is part of the Boise School District and Centennial is part of the West Ada School District. The state’s two largest school districts have taken an entirely different approach to handling coronavirus case numbers.

Boise launched a website in August, listing confirmed and probable coronavirus cases by building. West Ada has no such website.

Just like trustees and charter administrators have the latitude to make school opening decisions, they can decide whether to release case numbers.

For Boise, the data provides the framework for a phased school reopening plan that could unfold into November.

“It helps inform our decisionmaking, it helps inform the decisionmaking for the public,” spokesman Dan Hollar said.

‘There’s a lot of chatter’

West Ada — Idaho’s largest school district, with 40,000 students — has not publicly released coronavirus case numbers. Instead, the district contacts parents if a child might have been exposed to someone who tested positive. “We’ve always reached out to those who need to know,” spokeswoman Char Jackson said this week.

West Ada’s radio silence became a story in mid-September, when the Idaho Statesman used a series of public records requests to illustrate the schools’ coronavirus data gaps. Since then, trustees have heard from frustrated patrons, and spokeswoman Char Jackson says she has received about a dozen angry emails.

“There’s a lot of chatter on Facebook on wanting to see positive cases,” she said.

Jackson also said the district is reluctant to simply report out “a positive number that really doesn’t tell a story.” Of course, a positive case number does tell at least part of the story — particularly to a parent trying to weigh the safety of sending a son or daughter into the classroom.

Even so, West Ada isn’t all wrong here. Without context, case numbers are an important but incomplete piece of the puzzle. (That’s why, since April, Idaho Education News has published a detailed weekly roundup tracking trends in cases, testing, deaths, hospitalizations and other metrics.)

For a school district, testing data matters. Information on quarantining also matters. The district plans to launch a database that includes testing numbers and outlines “symptom management,” Jackson said. There is no timetable to go live, however.

West Ada has another reservation, Jackson said. While the district could easily release data about its 40,000 students with little risk of violating federal or state student privacy laws, she says it’s tougher to release data about staffers who test positive.

That’s a fair point, said Quinn Perry, the Idaho School Boards Association’s policy and government affairs director.

“It’s not hard to nail down, even in a large district, who we are talking about,” she said.

Boise works around the issue of outing staffers by lumping together all data. So, that one positive case at Capital High School, occurring some time between June 22 and Aug. 16? There’s no way to tell if it involved a student or an employee.

The state’s role

The state Department of Health and Welfare’s page will do what Boise does — but for 115 school districts and more than 70 charter schools statewide. Each Friday, the state will post aggregate case numbers for every school in the state.

Health and Welfare has experience in processing and releasing school-level data. For years, the agency has compiled detailed reports on childhood immunizations — a critical data set, as the anti-vaccination movement has caused a sharp increase in Idaho’s immunization opt-out rates.

West Ada will cooperate with Health and Welfare and turn in data, Jackson said.

“We do think that will solve a lot of problems,” she said. “We just feel like they’re the best agency to put out this information and gather it accurately.”

ISBA has advised school leaders to work with their local health district and contact anyone who might be at risk of contracting the virus from someone who has tested positive, but ISBA hasn’t weighed in on whether schools should release their case numbers publicly.

A centralized database makes sense, Perry said, because it means one less job for an overburdened school administrative team. There are some jobs school nurses have to do — such as poring over seating charts to work on contact tracing. Many small districts and charters don’t have the staffing to figure out how to release data without compromising student privacy, and keep a website up-to-date.

“School leaders have been tasked with many things,” Perry said.

Certainly, the same goes for parents. The last thing they need is to have to hunt around for basic information about their neighborhood schools — information that, in many cases, is simply unavailable.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.



Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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