State wants weekly reports on schools' coronavirus cases

Students wearing masks arrive at Jackson Elementary School in Lawrenceville for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Gwinnett County, the state’s largest SCHOOL district, publishes a report of coronavirus cases online each weekday. Now, every public school in Georgia will provide information about cases, quarantines and clusters of cases to the Georgia Department of Public Health each Friday as part of a new uniform COVID-19 reporting system. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com
Students wearing masks arrive at Jackson Elementary School in Lawrenceville for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Gwinnett County, the state’s largest SCHOOL district, publishes a report of coronavirus cases online each weekday. Now, every public school in Georgia will provide information about cases, quarantines and clusters of cases to the Georgia Department of Public Health each Friday as part of a new uniform COVID-19 reporting system. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia is now gathering a weekly snapshot of coronavirus infections in public schools as part of the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Although schools have been sharing case counts and other information with public health officials, this is the first effort to establish a uniform report for all 180 school districts. The directions ask that information from every school be sent to the state health agency by 5 p.m. each Friday.

The reports, which started Aug. 28, will allow the Georgia Department of Public Health to monitor the spread of the disease within each school, helping to identify effective prevention and control measures, spokeswoman Nancy Nydam explained by email. Schools already had to report much of this information to district health officials (there are 18 such districts), Nydam said, but this new call for reporting will allow the state to harvest other information, such as mitigation strategies used.

Schools should report not only their number of laboratory-confirmed cases but also “clusters" of cases. They should also report the number of people in quarantine. If close contacts were not quarantined, the school is supposed to explain why.

It is unclear how much of this information will make its way to the public. Schools have been left to establish their own methods for public disclosure. Typically, they post information on their websites, but the nature of the information varies by district.

08/20/2020 - Cartersville, Georgia - Students stand socially distant in the cafeteria as they purchase their school lunches at Cartersville Middle School in Cartersville, Thursday, August 20, 2020. Students eat in their classrooms. This will allow the school to better contact trace, if a student tests positive for COVID-19.  (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
08/20/2020 - Cartersville, Georgia - Students stand socially distant in the cafeteria as they purchase their school lunches at Cartersville Middle School in Cartersville, Thursday, August 20, 2020. Students eat in their classrooms. This will allow the school to better contact trace, if a student tests positive for COVID-19. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Some publish daily case counts, for instance, while others publish weekly numbers. Some keep all their disclosures online so parents can use older documents to see trends over time, while others replace them with each disclosure cycle. Some districts reveal the number of people quarantined due to close contact with the infected and others do not. Some publish case counts for each school and others only for the district at large.

Gwinnett County, the state’s largest district, publishes a report each weekday. It contains new case counts at each school and the number of people in close contact with the infected, along with a districtwide tally. The district began returning students to classrooms for in-person learning late last month.

The reports on Gwinnett’s website are relatively thorough, allowing parents to calculate both the current spread of cases and the trend over time, at each school and in the district as a whole.

Other districts, such as Houston County south of Macon, offer less information.

Unlike Gwinnett, Houston’s disclosure webpage does not clearly indicate the number of cases at each school. Houston also does not report associated quarantines, and it removes prior reports so new visitors to the page do not see the cumulative numbers.

Dr. Jason Hatcher, a physician who lives there, wanted to know how safe his children’s schools were and found the information lacking. He filed dozens of document requests, using the state’s open records law. He intended to post what he learned on social media for the benefit of other families but said officials have not been very forthcoming.

“They’ve just stonewalled and stalled,” said Hatcher, who decided to keep his young son home but let his daughter attend high school as long as she wears an N95 mask throughout the day, even during lunch (she eats a big breakfast).

A Houston County Schools spokesperson said parents are alerted about cases at their own school through a messaging service. Parents of children in close contact with people who have COVID-19 are notified by the principal, and state health officials get the quarantine data. The spokesperson said there are plans to add past data to the website.

>>Is your school transparent about COVID-19? Are you satisfied with the reporting about infections and quarantines? Let us know at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com

It is unclear whether the state will release the information it is now collecting from schools. Nydam said Wednesday that the state health agency was not publishing it “at this time," but said agency officials were discussing the possibility. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed an open records request for the new information Wednesday.

State school Superintendent Richard Woods has called for transparency with coronavirus cases. He said he supports the new uniform reporting process the state health agency has established. It will allow schools and state health officials to watch for and respond to potential outbreaks, he said in a written statement.

“I would also support the public release of this information to allow parents and community members to review and make informed decisions about their children’s education," he said.

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