The NOLA Public Schools district’s three-week-old, publicly facing COVID-19 case reporting dashboard prompted a few questions last week at the Orleans Parish School Board’s monthly meeting.
The United Teachers of New Orleans union Lead Organizer Collete Tippy rattled off a stream of pointed questions in her allotted two minutes of public comment on the board’s vote to adopt its agenda — which did not include any specific report on cases in schools. Tippy objected to the district’s weekly reports, which only show what the district calls “active” cases among students and school staff but does not include a running total of cases.
“Why does the tracker only show current cases and not provide any historical data? The tracker has two percentages, the percent positive and percent quarantine. What are those percentages of? People who are in the classroom? Are they percentages of everyone? Are they based on actual testing?”
Tippy also said the district should report what it knows about where transmissions may have occurred and whether multiple positive cases in a particular school are related or coincidence.
In an interview Friday morning, Tippy said that she was glad the district was at least providing some information.
“It’s a huge first step in terms of transparency, that they list the schools and cases and how many in quarantine,” Tippy said. “But it leaves a lot unanswered about how this plan is working right now.”
Tippy isn’t the only one questioning how the district is presenting its COVID-19 data. In an interview with The Lens, data analyst Jeff Asher — who closely follows state and local infection data and writes a column for The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate — said the decision to show only “active” cases in each report leaves out meaningful data on where outbreaks may be occurring. Asher also said the district’s data on percent positivity — calculated by dividing the number of positive tests by the total number of students and staff — isn’t a useful statistic.
In contrast, the Louisiana Department of Health and the city of New Orleans positivity statistics compare the number of positive tests to tests taken.
“I’ve seen that percent positive in a couple of places and it’s just not a meaningful statistic,” Asher said of the school district’s method. “It gives a false sense that incidence is low even when it might not be low in the future,”
At least one school — Lusher Charter School — which currently has three student cases, has reverted some grades to at-home learning. Last week, staffing shortages forced Lusher to send all sixth and seventh grade students home for virtual classes, after having initially opened for in-person classes Oct. 14. They’re slated to return to campus early next week.
The dashboard had already drawn the attention of one Lusher parent, who has kept her daughter in virtual classes even after the school opened up for in-person learning, before cases were announced last week. She has been taking daily screenshots of the tracker, which she thinks could use additional context. She asked that her name not be published in this story.
“I think their data is very vague and as a parent it’s difficult to use what they’re providing to make any choices about their education,” she said in a Thursday interview.
NOLA Public Schools debuted the tracker Oct. 8 and updates it each Thursday. District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said it goes “above and beyond what other school districts in Louisiana are publicly sharing, because we feel it’s critical that our school community – our teachers, staff, students and parents – have confidence in our safe, measured return to in-person learning.”
The district’s COVID-19 tracker displays a variety of information. It includes confirmed cases in staff and students broken down by school site. It also includes a “percent positivity” and “percent quarantine.”
On any given day, the tracker is only showing “active” cases (as updated the Thursday prior). Once a case is old enough to no longer be considered “active” — as determined by the Louisiana Department of Health — it is no longer listed. District officials said they believe this gives families “as close to real-time information about the impact of the pandemic so that they can make real-time decisions.”
In an interview Friday, data analyst Jeff Asher praised the district for providing data and discussed its limitations.
“It’s great that they are providing data. Obviously something is better than nothing,” he said. “But because we know such a small percentage of cases get identified— Even today we’re talking about one in five infections becoming an actual positive test.”
That means the number of active confirmed cases can only tell the public so much, he said.
“As far as actually understanding whether we’re seeing an outbreak it doesn’t really tell us much,” Asher said.
The district does not make a cumulative case count publicly available, but based on what it’s released, the cumulative count over the first three reporting periods appears to be 27 cases: 12 cases in week one, four new cases in week two, and 11 new cases in week three.
The Lusher parent said she thinks the tracker needs more information. Her daughter has remained in remote learning this school year.
“You look at this, and if you don’t know the background, it doesn’t say that this is just a snapshot. If you don’t know that or you’re not following the news, it looks really good and you’re like ‘oh my gosh I can send my kid back’,” she said.
“The numbers here look deceptively low, only because there is not enough context provided to give the full picture in my opinion,” she said.
For example, the district’s tracker boasts a “percent positive” rate of .03 percent — what is not explicitly stated on its dashboard is that that number comes from positive cases taken out of the total population of staff and students.
“We calculate the number of active cases and individuals actively quarantined and divide it by our total school community population (students, teachers, and school-based staff), and present it as a percentage,” Alfonzo explained.
That differs greatly from the many agencies that present a “positivity rate” calculated as the percent of positive COVID-19 tests out of all tests taken. The city and Louisiana Department of Health frequently use this rate — specifically monitoring for an upper limit of 5 percent — to gauge public health.
That method takes into account the fact that relatively few people are getting tested at any time and is therefore representative of transmissions — including unknown transmission — within a population.
But district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district doesn’t claim its “percent positive” statistic is the same thing as a positivity rate.
“The percentage included in the dashboard is not a positivity rate, nor is it intended to mimic the city’s COVID-19 data collection,” she wrote. “It is a simple calculation to give viewers a sense of scale and insight into the impact of these confirmed cases and quarantines on the District as a whole.”
Asher said that while the way the district calculates positivity is not ideal, it’s not particularly concerning because city and state data currently show low positivity in New Orleans. He also said the school district likely doesn’t have the capacity to report a more helpful number because it doesn’t have all the data on tests being administered.
“They’re not the ones who are running tests,” he said. “So I think it’s harder, probably impossible, for the schools to say how many people have been tested.”
“It’s better than nothing, I appreciate that they are trying. But it’s not necessarily all of the information that we need,” Asher said. “That may be because they don’t have it and they can’t give it to us.”
But the district still does tout its low “percent positive” number.
“As you can see, the percentages are well below 1 percent, indicating that our careful approach and our schools’ adherence to safety guidelines is working,” Alfonzo wrote.
“This percentage gives us a broad understanding of COVID’s impact on our school community, and that the data shows the effectiveness of our roadmap guidelines.”
Tippy, the union organizator, hopes they’ll provide more information, specifically regarding potential transmission in schools. The district has a three-phased reopening plan that sets classroom and bus capacity limits, requires masks and limits certain activities depending on the phase.
“Part of this is we need to understand how this is working,” she said.
At the end of last week’s board meeting, members John Brown Sr., Grisela Jackson and Nolan Marshall Jr. — all who are running for reelection — asked that Tippy’s transcribed comments regarding the COVID-19 dashboard be provided to them.
Lauren Jewett, a special education teacher, also spoke during public comment.
“So much is being asked of our educators in the building. … We wonder how long this is really truly sustainable with our own health,” she said. “We know that continued transparency and accountability for the public as well as avenues to report concerns are definitely needed. Some exist within school sites and some do not.”
She asked the board to consider adding a report on COVID-19 cases to its monthly meetings. And that the item be open to public comment.
“This is a public health situation for all of our school communities,” she said. “We really need a mechanism in place to hear from the people in our school buildings, that includes students, teachers and school staff. And it has to be on an ongoing basis on how this implementation in schools is truly going.”
The district has two hotlines for reporting concerns. One for parents (504-304-KIDS) and another for community members (504-522-HELP).
‘I’m just not comfortable with so much uncertainty’
Asher said he mainly looks to the city’s dashboard and other data sources to understand what’s going on with COVID-19 in the community.
“The whole point is to identify if we’re having an outbreak and how do we see that,” he said.
“So far it doesn’t look like we’re going to see a huge outbreak in our schools that’s not reflected in the city at large,” he said.
“If we thought there was a surge in the city you may look to see the confirmed active cases in the school. The incidence in the city at large can help inform us about whether we need to be worried about the schools,” he said.
Meanwhile the Lusher parent is watching the district’s dashboard closely because she has to decide next month whether her daughter will return to the classroom after winter break. They’ve kept her home since school started.
“Do we stick to distance learning or should they actually be back if anyone gets a case, and they get sent home?” she pondered.
She worries about her daughter’s continuity of learning, if switching back and forth between home and school continues to happen.
“Ultimately our primary reason is to keep her healthy,” she said, of keeping her home. “I’m just not comfortable with so much uncertainty and we don’t really have the data to confirm one way or another.”
She said she appreciates the district’s effort, but hopes they’ll provide more data and context in future reports. Asher has similar sentiments.