Alabama Schools Struggle Without COVID Data Collection



(TNS) – Much like last year, school districts in Alabama have had cases of COVID this fall.

But the state does not publicly report any school epidemic. And while the state publishes a weekly dashboard of reported cases, schools and public health officials do not investigate all cases, making it difficult for the public to identify outbreaks and raising concerns among them. parents, who try to monitor potential exposures on their own.

“Based on widespread community transmission and the number of daily positive COVID-19 cases and close contacts, the Ministry of Public Health is unable to investigate, trace contacts or issue quarantine orders for all positive cases and close contacts, ”Dr. Karen Landers, of the State Department of Public Health, said in September.

Leah Dueffer, a parent from Vestavia Hills where masks are now optional, said her district’s decision not to contact Trace means she never knows if she is sending her children to a safe environment.

“Every day I ask my children: is there anyone in your class? And how many children are outside in your classroom? Basically all I have to consider is what I hear from my kids or what I hear from my friends about what their kids have told them, ”she said. “And if you don’t know other families in your class, you might not know what’s going on.”

Alabama school superintendents, executive director Ryan Hollingsworth, wonder why ADHD still lacks the capacity to effectively contact trace cases 18 months after the start of the pandemic.

“It should be the responsibility of the Alabama public health department to contact the trace of a communicable disease, period,” Hollingsworth said.

Lack of data

School and health officials hypothesized that children spread the virus at school, and sometimes used the word “epidemic” when we talk about decisions to close schools or require masks. But they did not say whether increases in cases met the official public health definition of an “epidemic,” defined as at least three cases that were found to be related in school setting or in an extracurricular activity sanctioned by. school.

It is not known whether state officials even collect and analyze this information.

Because COVID-19 is an illness that must be reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health, school officials are reporting known cases to ADPH online through the “Novel Coronavirus Report Bulletin. “Outbreaks can be reported in two ways: on the”Communicable Disease Report CardOr called to the Division of Infectious Diseases and Epidemics.

In addition to reporting all cases directly to ADPH, school nurses are required to report the number of new cases their district has become aware of each week for the Alabama Department of Education’s COVID K-12 dashboard. , published every Thursday. This form does not require the name of the child’s or teacher’s school.

In response to AL.comasking for the number of COVID outbreaks that occurred in schools in the 2020-21 school year, ADHD lawyer Dana Billingsley wrote: data and is not easily attainable or always identifiable as such. Such data is not kept by schools and should be extracted with special programs or report forms. “

Further questions to ADPH about whether they are tracking epidemics in schools have gone unanswered despite repeated requests.

Other states – including Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia – report outbreaks in schools to the public, but with varying levels of consistency and detail. Others, like Tennessee, involved in battles over masking in public and in schools, have decided not to follow school cases at all.

For its part, the Alabama State Department of Education said ADHD officials helped school officials make decisions in some places when an outbreak occurred, but the volume of COVID cases this year has made that difficult.

When asked if the education department is monitoring where school outbreaks have occurred, head nurse Jennifer Ventress said it had not been possible for them to do so.

“Due to the high number and hybrid operations of schools over the past 24 months,” Ventress said, “we have not been able to monitor logistics or where and when outbreaks are occurring.”

School districts are reporting new cases every week for posting to the COVID-19 K-12 Dashboard, and department officials are monitoring those numbers, she said.

School officials are also monitoring the ADPH dashboard which shows the spread of COVID by county, she added.

Some school district officials post the number of new cases on their websites, in daily or weekly updates at the school or district level.

“We have some districts that took the lead,” Hollingsworth said, “because I guess no one else was doing it, and they wanted to do it for their parents.”

The lack of available data on where epidemics are occurring frustrates Hollingsworth. Ahead of the start of the 2020-21 school year, superintendents asked ADHD to share case data by zip code to help them decide whether the in-person school was safe to do.

“We were told we couldn’t get this information,” he said.

This leaves school officials making health decisions, Hollingsworth added, which they are not fully equipped to do.

Representative Terri Collins, R- Decatur, chairs the House Education Policy Committee and said she had not requested any information from ADHD on outbreaks in schools. School districts in her area are releasing COVID data at the school level, she said, providing parents with transparency about what is happening in their children’s schools.

“They seem to know their data is what I hear,” she said.

Last year

In addition to complaints about a lack of analysis and scattered information this school year, officials wonder why Alabama apparently did not conduct a full-scale review of last year’s cases and then used these information to inform their current response.

The Alabama Department of Public Health or other agencies did not conduct a large-scale review of cases in schools during the 2020-21 school year to assess whether masking was effective or whether school epidemics could occur, as other states have.

As a condition of returning to in-person learning, North Carolina last year required schools to submit data on the transmission of COVID in schools to the ABC Science Collaborative, which is managed by the Duke Clinical Research. Institute.

The collaboration gathered, analyzed and interpreted data from 100 participating school districts and 14 charter schools, representing 864,515 students who were educated in the school and 160,549 staff. The study found that there was very limited transmission in school and that proper masking was an effective mitigation strategy, with less than 1% transmission occurring even without social distancing.

This school year, collaborative researchers held regular monthly meetings with superintendents to discuss the strategy. They expanded their research outside of North Carolina to work with 200 districts in 18 states.

“Our research has shown that masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent transmission in schools. This will be true regardless of geography, ”said Dr. Michael Smith, associate professor of pediatrics at Duke. “However, we are encouraging districts in Alabama to partner with us as they can leverage our data visualization tools to track cases over time.”

Alabama schools also have the opportunity to partner with ADHD and the University of Alabama at Birmingham to conduct free and voluntary testing of students and staff to maintain in-person learning with minimal disruption.

However, UAB researchers only collect aggregate data to evaluate the program, rather than drawing conclusions about outbreaks in schools or the effectiveness of mitigation measures.

Moving forward

Last year, Alabama school officials were to keep track of seating maps and notify parents if students were exposed to a positive or suspected case of COVID. This year, schools were told they didn’t have to.

“ADHD was expected to go through both school years, and especially the first year. [contact trace]”Hollingsworth said.” And [ADPH] did not have the capacity to do so. So he went down to the level of the school. And there’s a lot of frustration among the superintendents that we just have to do it because no one else is doing it. “

Hollingsworth said officials he spoke to are also frustrated by the pressure to make decisions about hiding and school closures, which could best be made by medical professionals or with the advice of the ‘ADPH on the specific measures to be used. “In the absence of any ADHD parameters, local districts, councils and superintendents develop theirs,” he said. “That’s why you see differences across the state.”

Districts could demand universal masking for two weeks, he said, and then promise to reassess based on the case data school officials collect. But Hollingsworth reiterated that these really are health care decisions that school officials need more help with.

“[School officials] are doing their best, ”he said. “And they’re trying to communicate that but there’s no consistency at all because it’s all at the local level, between this superintendent and this education council.”

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