Last Wednesday, the Louisiana Department of Health removed information on its COVID-19 monitoring website that recorded the number of outbreaks associated with “colleges/universities” and “primary/secondary schools.” 

The outbreak page is part of LDH’s COVID-19 data transparency website, which also includes statistics on known COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospital capacity. The outbreaks page still has information on the number of outbreaks at many types of businesses, including bars, casinos, and food processing facilities. Those stood at 41, seven and 27, respectively, as of Tuesday afternoon. It even still includes a setting very similar to schools: child daycare centers, where 24 outbreaks and 85 cases have been reported as of Tuesday. 

The lack of information about schools came at a critical time: just as thousands of students at K-12 schools and colleges throughout the state were returning to classrooms and dorms after summer break. By the time it was removed, students had not been back for long enough to show the full effects of reopening schools. Just prior to its removal, the dashboard showed four outbreaks and 158 total cases associated with colleges and universities, and five outbreaks and 26 total cases associated with primary and secondary schools.

But LDH plans to publish similar data on K-12 and postsecondary schools in a different format. For the latter category, the new data could be coming out as soon as this week. 

The reason for last Wednesday’s change, according to LDH spokesman Sean Ellis, is that “the definition of an outbreak for COVID-19 is a less meaningful indicator with schools and universities open.”

LDH — based on CDC recommendations — describes an outbreak as “2 or more cases among unrelated individuals that have visited a site within a 14-day time period.”

With thousands of students on campus, the number of outbreaks says little about the extent of spread, Ellis said.

“Take LSU. You could have 50,000 people on campus, and two have COVID, and that’s an outbreak,” said Ellis.

That doesn’t apply to many K-12 schools, where hundreds of students attend classes in a single building. But Ellis said that wide distributions in school size can make that data just as uninformative.

“You have elementary schools with 200 people. But you’re also including high schools with 1500 students and 300 staff. It’s additive,” he said.

The same rationale could apply to many of the types of businesses still included in the outbreak page, like casinos or offices. Asked why outbreaks were still reported for those businesses, and why the state decided not to continue to include schools data while a better solution was being worked out, Ellis said on Tuesday afternoon that he could not immediately respond but would try to find more information.

It’s not clear when new data will be made available for public K-12 schools, which had more than 700,000 students enrolled as of the 2019-2020 school year. Many of those are in districts that opted to reopen in full and on time in August. (Locally, the NOLA Public Schools district isn’t among these. It will begin a phased reopening later this month.)

College and university data could be up by end of week

As for colleges and universities, infection data should be available very soon, Ellis said.

“We hope to have it up and running by the end of the week,” he said. “We lost some time last week as the same teams working on standing up that system were focused on preparing for and responding to Hurricane Laura.”

Many postsecondary schools, including UNO, LSU, and Loyola, will provide some testing but rely on self-reporting by students and employees who test positive. The Department of Health, which receives positive test results directly from labs, may also identify education-associated cases during contact tracing interviews.

“We will report weekly aggregate cases of students, faculty, and staff on campus,” said Meg Sunstrom, a spokesperson for the state Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education. “The nuance there is, right now many of our campuses are in a hybrid learning model. Some students that are registered at LSU are taking all their classes online. If you’re taking all your classes from Houston, it’s less important to know than if you’re in a dorm, attending class.”

Once the campuses have aggregated those on-campus cases, they will then report them to the Department of Health, which will release them online.

“Right now, all of the campuses want to be transparent,” Sunstrom said. “We feel like this is the information that we as campus leaders, as the Regents, will use in trying to make decisions because that’s what you know, that’s how you’re going to keep your campus safe. We know that COVID is on our campuses, because it’s in our communities, and our communities are part of our campuses.”

Some New Orleans colleges have already been publicly reporting their infection statistics on their websites. Southern University at New Orleans is reporting 15 total cases, 13 among employees. Loyola reports 24 cases, 23 of which were among students.

UNO has learned of 9 cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks, all among students, a spokesperson told The Lens. The university plans to share regular updates internally over email.

Tulane University will be internally testing undergraduates on a weekly basis, while graduate students and employees will be tested monthly. The school is developing a dashboard that will display daily results that will be available “in the coming weeks,” said spokesperson Michael Strecker, with results released on Wednesdays in the meantime. Between August 19 and 26, the university administered 2,470 tests and found 73 new cases, although more cases that came from external testing aren’t yet reflected in that number.

No clear answers on availability of K-12 infection data

The Department of Health and the Department of Education are also working on a platform for reporting cases within primary and secondary schools. However, neither could provide more information on the timing or details of the platform. 

Officials told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate earlier this month that the system was still in the planning phase.

The NOLA Public Schools district plans to release its own weekly information on outbreaks starting the week of Sept. 14, when young students begin returning to classes, although the format of those releases hasn’t yet been decided. “There’s a number of testing programs being done, which will be ramped up as students return to classes,” said district spokesperson Dominique Ellis. Some schools are running their own programs, while the district recently announced a screening partnership to be rolled out in the coming weeks. “As schools have cases pop up, they must report to us and the Department of Health.”

However, KIPP New Orleans Schools, the largest charter school network in the district, has announced that although it plans to offer voluntary rapid testing to its employees, it will not publicize the results of tests out of privacy concerns.