National survey finds low school COVID-19 rates after first week back

But methodology of projects questioned

BOSTON — An ambitious project to track COVID-19 infections in schools across the U.S. released its first findings Wednesday.

The National COVID-19 School Response Data Dashboard, run out of Brown University, hopes to not only keep track of coronavirus activity but to ascertain which school-based mitigation efforts seem to be working.

The dashboard found national infection rates for the period of August 31 - September 13 to be .078% for students and 0.15% for school staff.

“In reality we don’t know that the incidence is that low because for example if a student stays home from school, they didn’t feel well, they might not have been tested (for Covid-19),” said Brooke Nichols, MSc, PhD, assistant professor of Global Health at the Boston University School of Public Health. “It’s important to realize that the sample is just a number of schools. So it doesn’t represent the entire United States.”

In fact, fewer than 600 of the nation’s 130,000+ K-12 public and private schools supplied information to the dashboard. Nichols said that may or may not be a problem -- depending on how the schools were sampled.

“If this was a random sample of schools then that could be perhaps more predictive of what we might see in a state,” said Nichols. “But if it was selected because those were the schools willing to report the data or most engaged with this project, those schools might be sort of more biased towards more control or maybe to have some testing strategies in place.”

In fact, schools report voluntarily into the dashboard. And the hope is more will sign on as the project moves forward.

Other issues Nichols sees with the report:

-- There’s no telling if infected, asymptomatic students who were never tested for COVID-19 are included in the numbers.

-- During the data reporting period, some schools hadn’t opened yet.

-- The national average infection rate tells nothing useful about local infection rates - which will ultimately impact local communities.

“What we want to know about schools is do schools contribute to outbreaks and to increasing community transmission,” Nichols said. “So once there’s more coronavirus that we are detecting in schools, that’s higher than in the community, that is concerning.”

Lumping in 47 states to come up with a national average may produce an accurate number, but, as Nichols suggested, it’s not a very useful one.

“America is a giant country and the pandemic so far as we know has been a patchwork, and we need to continue to view it as such,” Nichols said. “Massachusetts is not Texas which is not California.”

Still, Nichols said the good news is the survey did not find thousands of infections. In fact, it found just 79 confirmed infections in students and 45 in staff.

“It’s a great resource and I think it will be able to tell us more with time -- especially with careful interpretation and very local settings where we understand what the testing process was,” she said. “But until we have that information and a bit more data I’m afraid that this can’t tell us much.”

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