How many schools are closed due to Covid? And other questions we can’t answer | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools

Dan French
Education Secretary Dan French discusses school reopening plans at a Covid-19 press briefing on August 18, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

How many schools are remote-only in Vermont right now because of Covid-related cases and quarantines? That’s impossible to say, at least using data collected and reported by the state.

Speaking in late January, Education Secretary Dan French said that while the agency had, at one time, considered providing some sort of tracker to report on how many schools were closed at any given time, it had ultimately decided it just wasn’t worth the effort required of school districts to report such information.

“We have to acknowledge that that requires time away for schools to actually do the work, and they’ve got a lot on their plates right now,” he said. 

Besides, French argued, the monthly surveys give decision-makers the information they need.

“I don’t, from a state perspective, generally need to understand on a daily basis what’s going on in schools,” he said.

But local school officials say they wouldn’t mind reporting that kind of information to the state — and could indeed benefit from the contextual information about their neighbors that data could give them.

David Younce, president of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said it would be “appropriate and manageable” for local school superintendents to report this sort of information — and useful.

“This would provide a more accurate picture of how daily health data regarding positive cases and transmission is actually impacting school in-person operations,” he said.

The Vermont Health Department’s schools Covid dashboard, which is updated twice weekly, reports only instances in which an individual — staff or student — was physically in school while infectious; not necessarily included are instances when someone caught the virus at school. Some individual districts, many of which have their own public dashboards, will often report on a broader category of school-related cases.

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The state Agency of Education is also surveying school districts on a monthly basis. These surveys provide retroactive information about how many students, statewide, learned in person, remotely, or in a hybrid setting in any given month, as well as how many schools closed because of the virus. But school-by-school or district-by-district is not reported, and there is no real-time information.

Just across the Connecticut River, the data picture is different. In New Hampshire, an interactive K-12 dashboard tracks current cases and outbreaks, absenteeism and staff capacity, as well as mitigation measures and instructional mode (hybrid, remote, or in-person) for individual schools. 

Still, the Granite State’s data efforts have been criticized by local educators, according to New Hampshire Public Radio, who say the state’s data is often inaccurate. 

In the absence of state or national plans for schools in the pandemic, local districts nationwide have been largely on their own to make decisions about how to operate their schools in the era of Covid-19. And that’s extended to what kind of data gets tracked and reported, which can differ profoundly depending on the state and even the individual district. 

Under President Biden, the federal government has acknowledged the need to get a clearer — and more standardized — picture of the pandemic’s impact on schooling. The U.S. Department of Education announced in early February it would soon start collecting information about such things as instructional modes, a breakdown of enrollment patterns by race and socioeconomic status, and absentee rates.

David Younce, President of the Vermont Superintendents Association. VSA photo

Education officials have consistently highlighted the difficult logistics of operating schools during the pandemic — particularly where staffing and quarantines are concerned. 

Younce, who is also the superintendent in the Mill River Unified Union School District, said he’d like some kind of accounting about sports-related quarantines, the number of “close contacts” identified when cases popped up in schools, and how much time school personnel were spending on contact-tracing efforts.

Jeanne Collins, superintendent for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said she agreed with Younce. Local districts, she said, “are often acting as islands” in the absence of a strong hand or good data from the state.

The CDC recently recommended pegging reopening decisions to local transmission levels, and a fellow superintendent, she said, recently struggled to get this information from the state while trying to devise local metrics for closing. (Another New England state, Connecticut, reports exactly this sort of information to help schools decide how and when to reopen.)

Collins expressed sympathy for the Vermont Department of Health, which has been slammed with work, particularly during the state’s second wave this winter. But she said that still left local school leaders making high-stakes decisions with limited information.

“The state not knowing how this is done or having current data can impact us,” she said.

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