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Senate Democrats Press Trump Administration to Collect, Disseminate School Reopening Data

SENATE DEMOCRATS URGED the Trump administration this week to create a centralized database to track school-related coronavirus cases and school reopening plans in order to provide more reliable information for school leaders trying to reopen for in-person learning.

“As schools have begun the new academic year operating in-person, remotely, or with a hybrid approach, there has been wide variation in both the reporting and tracking of COVID-19 cases at schools that provide in-person learning,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota wrote in a letter dated Oct. 27 to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield.

“The Trump Administration has not formulated or disseminated a national method for reporting and tracking COVID-19 cases in these schools, resulting in inconsistent, unreliable, and unavailable information,” the Democratic senators wrote.

The letter comes in the wake of remarks by DeVos last week that it’s not her responsibility or that of the federal government to track school districts, their coronavirus infection rates and how they’re reopening – the most direct response to education leaders across the country who have been urging the Trump administration for a comprehensive database to help them navigate the pandemic.

“This sentiment represents a complete abdication of national leadership, which has made it difficult for local education leaders, families, and policymakers to accurately evaluate the risk of physically reopening schools,” Warren and Smith wrote. “Because of the importance of K-12 schools to local communities, we urge you to work together to begin coordinating with state and local officials to ensure complete, transparent, and timely local, state, and national reporting of COVID-19 cases linked to elementary and secondary schools nationwide.”

The pressure from Senate Democrats mounts as the country’s 13,000 school districts struggle with how to provide instruction for more than 50 million children during the pandemic. Educators have been especially critical of DeVos and the Trump administration for lack of guidance, especially given how much pressure the White House has put on them to reopen for in-person learning.

The superintendents association, along with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, researchers and others have taken it upon themselves to build a dashboard of school infection rates paired with reopening plans. So far, they’ve collected data on more than 2,000 schools.

Together with a similar database of reopening plans created by the Center for Reinventing Public Education and a massive outreach effort by Education Week’s research center, they represent the three biggest warehouses of available school-specific information.

But their efforts, in addition to not representing a robust enough sample size to draw any definitive conclusions, are also stymied by a web of complicating, overlapping and sometimes non-existent reporting requirements at the state, county and school district level.

Less than half of states publicly report COVID-19 cases in schools, and most don’t publish any information. Some districts share weekly or daily reports and updates regarding COVID-19 cases with the public, while other districts don’t report any information.

“Without robust and comparative data collection, it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of these strategies in reducing community spread of COVID-19 in schools that are operating in-person,” Warren and Smith wrote. “As schools continue to transition to in-person learning where it is safe to do so, methods of tracing, reporting, and tracking COVID-19 cases are critical to prevent widespread transmission within communities.”

Meanwhile, guidance from the CDC has been slow. Earlier this month, for example, the agency released long-awaited suggestions for COVID-19 testing in schools – nearly three months into the new academic year.

“This lack of clear guidance results in inconsistent information across localities, states, and the nation and is making it extremely challenging for schools and families to make informed decisions,” they wrote.

Perhaps most importantly, the establishment of a federal database would help researchers learn more about how the virus spreads, what safeguards are most effective and sharpen public health protocols so that schools can reopen for in-person learning safely.

“Although state and local authorities are responsible for working with their local school communities, guidance from HHS, ED, and CDC on what data to collect and make publicly available would allow for national comparisons that can meaningfully inform high-stakes decisions, including when and how to bring students back into school buildings safely and what sort of public health protocols or infrastructure improvements are most effective,” they wrote.

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