25 Investigates: Lack of uniform data contributing to discrepancies in state’s official tally of COVID cases in schools

BOSTON — Switching their 7-year-old son from remote to hybrid learning during a pandemic was not an easy decision for Kevin and Erin Maguire, but the Duxbury parents say it became necessary for social and academic reasons.

“Learning to read has been a struggle at home. Math hasn’t been so bad. But he needed to go back,” said Erin.

Duxbury is not yet on the state’s list of high-risk communities. So the Maguires say they trusted their gut and the COVID data and opted to send their son back to in-person learning.

“There’s no handbook for this. It was hard,” said Erin. “I think we’re in a time where getting the correct information is so hard that we can’t really rely on it at this point anyway.”

The Maguires aren’t the only ones questioning the COVID data they’re seeing.

Several viewers emailed us with concerns about the accuracy of numbers reported on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s [DESE] website.

“DESE is not reporting data correctly. Districts have numerous cases and they show 0 in DESE records,” read one email.

“[T]hey have only reported 1, and I am aware that there have been at least 5,” wrote another viewer.

So 25 Investigates decided to check out the numbers. After all, DESE keeps the only statewide tally of school cases, and its database is one of the sources the state uses “to provide support to local officials, in consultation with local public health authorities, and to monitor state-wide trends,” according to a document provided to 25 Investigates by DESE.

Since local health boards are supposed to be notified when a positive COVID case is confirmed and do contact tracing, we began by reaching out to health offices across the state. 25 Investigates reached out to 344 local boards in mid-October and 167 responded by our deadline.

We took the number of new infections DESE reported from the start of the current academic year to the end of October and compared it to the number of school cases provided to us by the boards of health.

Our analysis quickly revealed some inconsistencies. DESE’s numbers were higher than those reported by health boards in 14 communities over the same time period. Similarly, the numbers provided by 21 boards of health were higher than those posted on the DESE website.

For example, Chelmsford’s health officials reported 34 cases from September to October; while DESE’s website shows 10 school COVID cases.

In Hopkinton, DESE figures indicate four public school cases. But the local health office told us there were 10 cases in schools during that period.

And in Abington officials reported 5 cases and DESE reported 11 during the same period.

“We continue to hear from the field that the data our locals are tracking doesn’t match the data that DESE is putting forward,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Union. “Accuracy and transparency are the most important things in reporting the data so we can understand the risk level.”

25 Investigates found a handful of reasons for the inconsistencies, including no uniformity in the way positive school cases are collected and reported.

In Abington, for example, the health office only reports cases involving town residents. Therefore, if an Abington teacher tests positive but lives in a neighboring town that case is not recorded.

Another possible explanation for the discrepancies, according to on town health officer, “…School Administrators, School Nurses and Local Boards of Health are so busy that, unless prompted, they are not submitting their reports [to DESE] on a weekly basis.”

Even more surprising is that some boards of health told us they “don’t keep records” or “granular data” of positive cases.

“If they’re making decisions based on an underestimation or, really, an under-reporting, then these decisions are not safe,” added Najimy.

The Maguires say data will be important to them when deciding whether to keep their son attending school in person. But they recognize that data is only a good as the quality of the reporting process.

“It really comes down to almost like a gut feeling and it’s a shame it has to be that way. But there’s really no right or wrong answer because no one’s really sure,” said Kevin.

“The information just isn’t right collectively so…..,” Erin added.

A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education told 25 Investigates school districts rely on parents and staff to self-report positive cases. She added that DESE only publishes what the districts submit.

Another possible reason for the inconsistencies we found, according to DESE, is that some local health departments may be counting remote students and staff in their COVID totals. DESE only counts students and staff who have been in a school building in the seven days prior to the confirmed case.

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