By Zachary Matson/Gazette Reporter
Parents and teachers will soon be able to track how many COVID-19 cases appear in schools, as state officials are ordering school districts and local health departments to report student and staff testing data on a daily basis.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the new reporting requirement last week and detailed it further Tuesday, but local school and public health officials Tuesday night were still awaiting details about how to provide testing data they don’t yet collect.
Cuomo promised to sign an executive order Tuesday outlining how districts, local health departments and testing facilities would begin to collect and report school-specific information on total tests and positive cases. Cuomo argued the testing “report card” would provide parents and educators timely information about the number of infections that may be emerging in a specific school or district.
“Parents and teachers don’t want reassurances… they want the facts,” Cuomo said. “They will know on a day-to-day basis exactly what’s happening.”
Cuomo said the new dashboard, hosted at the state Department of Health website, will include the number of positive COVID-19 cases of students and staff within a school and district, the number of tests taken, and information on whether students and staff are working remotely or in person.
When Cuomo announced the new dashboard last week, some district officials raised questions about how the governor could require districts to report information they don’t collect. School districts are planning to conduct daily health screenings of students and staff and to track the movement of people around schools in case they need to use information to later trace and track contacts and points of potential exposure. Districts are also working closely with county health departments, but districts in the Capital Region are not conducting their own testing.
“It’s a reasonable thing for parents and employees to want,” Bob Lowry, of the State Council of School Superintendents, said of the new reporting requirement. “The real thing is how do you do it.”
Cuomo said the reporting requirement started Tuesday and the dashboard would go live Wednesday. But it’s unclear whether districts and local health agencies will be ready to report the data – or know what exactly to report and how – so soon.
Spokespeople in local districts reported receiving varying levels of information on the new reporting requirement Tuesday, with Niskayuna and Shenendehowa both indicating they had received something from the state and were preparing a process to report the information.
Keith Brown, Schenectady County interim public health director, said he thought a standardized source of information on COVID-19 testing and positive cases among school staff and students would be helpful to residents, but noted context of the data would be important. He said the department had not received state guidance on the new reporting requirement as of Tuesday evening and noted questions remained about how the data would be captured and reported.
“We want parents to look at that information and be able to use it to make the best decisions for their families and their potential risks as much as possible,” Brown said.
With Cuomo suggesting testing results will be tied directly to school buildings, districts, health agencies and testing sites will have to figure out a way to correlate testing data to specific schools and districts. Schenectady County health officials noted that in many cases they are only notified of positive results, and they begin collecting information about where people work as part of the tracing process that follows a positive case – not at the outset of testing.
Jennifer Tonks, a Schenectady County supervising public health nurse and a former Schenectady school nurse, said it was possible a question about recent testing could be added to daily health attestations districts are asking of students and staff as a source of school-level testing data. County health officials hold twice monthly phone calls with local nurses and school officials to discuss issues with the pandemic; county health departments will be charged with working with districts to manage positive school cases and to guide decisions about quarantines and school closures. Tonks said she thought it would be manageable to work with districts to collect more detailed information about testing in schools.
“Working with (districts) to try and figure out how many people are tested daily, I think that’s an easy task,” she said.
Brown said it was unrealistic to expect “real-time” testing results on the dashboard and said testing results in the county take around four or five days for results. He said the data should also be viewed through the broader context of how infections are increasing or decreasing in the broader region and that an uptick in the school may not necessarily be a product of a problem in the school.
But he said the data would be helpful to understanding trends and how testing results connected to schools are related to the broader community, noting the importance of a standardized source of information across the region and different school districts – rather than leaving districts of varying resource levels to manage their own reporting procedure. He said health officials will likely use the data to monitor potential clusters of cases. He said keeping an eye on the data will be critical as the state continues down its path of reopening without sliding backward on infection rates.
“As we reopen things, people are letting their guard down,” he said. “This thing has not gone away. Most of us are actually bracing for an increase.”