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IU Health Expert Warns School COVID-19 Case Data Is Undermined By Testing Gaps

Educators and their communities have pushed officials to publicly track COVID-19 cases found in schools, but one expert warns there hasn't been enough testing to make those numbers meaningful.

Indiana has a new school COVID-19 case dashboard in the works, and the public will be able to see the number of cases reported in schools across the state. 

But Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics and health expert at Indiana University, said context is critical – like whether or not a COVID-positive student got infected in the community instead of in school. 

"That's very different than saying, there are 10 cases, nine of which we can trace to one classroom in the school. That's a problem with the school," he said.

Testing influences COVID-19 positivity rates, and Carroll said some people don't test children for the coronavirus or only focus on people with symptoms. He said ultimately, local, state, and federal governments need to invest in more, broader testing to better inform health decisions for communities and for schools. 

"We're just not collecting broad data in any way that is, you know, mergeable or usable at any large level from school systems anywhere in the country as far as I know" he said.

But many school leaders and educators have ramped up pressure for officials to publicly share case data related to schools as they reopen. The National Education Association adopted an informal COVID-19 case tracker a teacher started maintaining independently by using local media reports.

Schools already share a lot of data, and Paige Kowalski from the national nonprofit Data Quality Campaign, said sharing the number of cases found in schools is essential to preserve trust and relationships with families. 

"I think what parents are looking for is honesty and trust and transparency about what's happening so that they can make a decision," she said.

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She said publicly sharing COVID-19 case counts with families is similar to the way schools share information about other illnesses or infections that could spread, like a stomach flu or lice. 

"Just a reminder to keep an eye out, because someone in our community has tested positive," she said. "Be a little extra vigilant, or make a decision to stay home and participate in online learning."

State officials expect the Indiana school COVID-19 data tracker to become available in the coming weeks.

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.

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