How to interpret Iowa schools' COVID-19 dashboards and make use of the data
When it comes to COVID-19, Iowans have a smorgasbord of data to choose from — from national to zip-code level maps of pandemic activity, and, in some school districts, information about outbreaks in school buildings and grade levels.
But what to make of it all? As students march through their third year of pandemic learning, here's what school and public health experts say families should know about school district COVID-19 dashboards.
COVID-19 school dashboards limited to, and only as good as, data reported
Data sets are only as good as their source material, and the COVID-19 dashboards some school districts use, while useful, have their limits, Des Moines Public Schools Health Services Supervisor Melissa Abbott said.
There are no requirements that families of students who test positive for the coronavirus pass the news to the district, she said. Staff members who test positive also are not required to report it.
"We only know about a positive case if it's reported," Abbott said. "Are there staff or students who don't let the school nurse know they just tested positive for COVID? Absolutely. So certainly our numbers are only as accurate as the numbers we're getting in, but it's just one of those variables."
Des Moines Public Schools, the largest district in the state, reported on its dashboard that 140 staff members and 603 students had tested positive between the start of the school year and Sept. 28. The district started publishing its dashboard last school year.
Lina Tucker Reinders, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, said that some parents may not seek tests for children who could be ill with COVID-19. They should do so, she said, but they might not if the children have mild symptoms that could be written off as a cold or allergies.
"I am a parent. I understand what it means if my kid tests positive. That's two weeks out of school, that's two weeks away from work potentially, that's two weeks more of work from home, (and homeschooling) through virtual learning," Tucker Reinders said. "Let's be real: the temptation is there to say 'It's mild, it's not severe, if I don't test I don't know.' That is not the right thing to do but I understand the temptation is there."
Without broad, regular testing, parents and Iowans won't know the true extent of virus activity in schools, she said, adding that the state rejected $95 million from the federal government that could have helped with that.
School dashboards are limited to virus activity in schools, not broader life
Des Moines school officials decided to report the cases they know about in an effort to be transparent and let community members know what they do, Abbott said. They collect the data on school days and report it the following day. That method leads to statistical spikes when the dashboard is updated Tuesdays, since those updates incorporate positive tests from the weekend and Mondays.
The district only reports confirmed positive cases, not pending, and doesn't single out schools or grades where people test positive in an effort to protect people's privacy, she said. The school also doesn't have the authority to enforce things like quarantines. In the spring, the Iowa Department of Public Health relaxed its COVID-19 guidance to say students shouldn't go to school if they test positive, but that schools should no longer require quarantine. COVID-19 should be treated like other childhood illnesses, according to the state guidance.
"(The dashboard is) just kind of a guide for them to look at and see where are we sitting today with numbers," Abbott said. "Do we see certain trends noted at the elementary level or high school level? Just so if we do notice anything, we can catch it sooner and see if there's anything we can drill down on and be improved on."
The dashboard numbers also reflect one slice of coronavirus' broad effect on society, not viral activity in schools, she said. There's still high community transmission of the virus in Polk County and the entire state, and exposures happen everywhere, she said.
"Just because a student or staff test positive doesn't mean they got it here at school," Abbott said. "We're all out in the community, going to the grocery store and going shopping and kids are out doing kid things. They could be exposed anywhere."
Verdict: School COVID-19 dashboards help, but don't replace CDC guidance
Tucker Reinders applauded the transparency some districts are showing with their dashboards, but she said they can be confusing, or even give cover to people trying to avoid best practices.
"There's lots of different things you can look at and draw conclusions from that may or may not be reflective of the larger community," Tucker Reinders said. "I don't want any school to take down the dashboard. Don't get me wrong. It just all needs to be in the context of we know there is community spread, we know that according to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) map we're at the highest risk."
The CDC reports a high rate of spread of the disease in all 99 Iowa counties, and in almost all of the country. It recommends everyone, including the unvaccinated, wear a mask when in indoor, public spaces.
Tucker Reinders said people should first and foremost follow CDC guidance. Just because a school district isn't reporting a lot of cases, or none in your child's grade, for example, doesn't mean the virus isn't circulating out in the community.
Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or at 515-284-8361.