For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit Maryland, most Baltimore-area schoolchildren are back in classrooms full time. And with the delta variant of the virus continuing to surge, COVID-19 cases are top of mind.
But each jurisdiction is publicizing different information about COVID-19 cases they discover. Experts say the data may paint a confusing picture for parents and community members trying to assess the dangers associated with the return to the classroom.
“It’s not very transparent. And it would be nice to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
In Baltimore County, for instance, officials are listing the number of quarantining “close contacts” of infected students, alongside the number of cases, on an online dashboard. But other counties only list case numbers. Harford County, on the other hand, doesn’t have a dashboard at all.
The state Department of Health, meanwhile, has its dashboard, but it includes only schools with an active outbreak, defined in a few different ways. Schools that have two or more COVID-19 cases in a 14-day period among people who interacted in school and who aren’t from the same household will appear, as will schools with cases in three different classes, or 5% of their population — so long as that is more than 10 people who aren’t from the same household.
The state dashboard does not include the number of students quarantining after exposure to an infected person.
In response to questions about whether the department planned to start including numbers of quarantining students, a spokesman said it is “continuously evaluating its data and reporting systems and will make updates as more data and additional information becomes available.”
That dashboard is updated every Wednesday morning, and schools are included until they no longer meet the outbreak classifications, said department spokesman Charlie Gischlar.
The patchwork of COVID-19 data from schools across the state could cloud an important message: that lower-than-hoped vaccination levels and high transmission of the virus are endangering children — and making learning more difficult, Gronvall said.
In Baltimore-area school districts, students quarantining at home after a positive test or exposure to the virus aren’t able to join classes synchronously online, although some districts are offering tutoring services.
“It’s — I think — important to see the costs of not as high vaccination coverage as you’d like to see,” Gronvall said. “I don’t know if it makes a difference to Parent A seeing what number of kids are in quarantine. But it is important on a policy level that, like, ‘There are costs.’”
The state’s decision to limit its dashboard to schools with an active outbreak was disappointing for the same reason, Gronvall said. The more information in a centralized location, the better, she said.
“It may be alarming to learn that there are positive cases that are discovered through the testing process,” Gronvall said. “Ultimately, it’s better for parents to know.”
But the data may also appear uneven because of different testing policies in different districts. Baltimore City is the only district in the area implementing surveillance testing of students and staff. That effort begins this week. Other districts, namely Anne Arundel County, have said they are considering such a regimen. In the meantime, city school officials are more likely to catch and report a greater number of positive tests, given their more frequent testing, Gronvall said.
Most other districts are simply offering optional tests in schools to students who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 during the day. In Carroll County, however, individual schools don’t have COVID-19 tests on hand, but there’s a testing site at Westminster High School, officials said.
To a certain extent, public health experts are used to weeding through the tangle of data from around the country and the globe to assess health problems on a grand scale, Gronvall said. Throughout the pandemic, experts have assailed differences in the ways states report testing positivity and other metrics. In Maryland, the Johns Hopkins University for months calculated a positivity rate different from that of the state, since experts there opted to exclude repeat tests from part of the calculation.
But that doesn’t make the problems associated with school data any less vexing, Gronvall said.
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“This is the story of public health,” she said.
Baltimore-area school COVID dashboards
Anne Arundel County: https://www.aacps.org/covid-19dashboard Will be updated weekly starting Wednesday by 5 p.m.
Baltimore City: https://www.baltimorecityschools.org/safety-procedures Click on “Learn more” under the COVID-19 Dashboard section.
Howard County: https://covid.hcpss.org Updated Monday through Friday by 4 p.m.