How Many Coronavirus Cases Are Happening In Schools? This Tracker Keeps Count

Aug 28, 2020
Originally published on August 28, 2020 6:57 am

Looking for a snapshot of coronavirus outbreaks in U.S. schools? The National Education Association has just launched a tracker of cases in public K-12 schools.

The tracker is broken down by state and shows schools and counties with known cases and suspected cases and deaths, as well as whether those infected were students or staff. It also includes links to the local news reports so users know where the virus data comes from.

The NEA tracker builds on the volunteer efforts of a Kansas theater teacher Alisha Morris. In early August, just ahead of the new school year, Morris was looking for data about coronavirus cases in U.S. schools. She could find local news reports about positive cases at individual schools across the country but nothing that gave her a cohesive picture of how the virus was spreading in schools.

So Morris built it herself.

She started with a simple Internet search.

"I put in the words 'school, positive' " she tells NPR's Morning Edition. "I clicked on the news tab and would search the articles from the past week or the past 24 hours and then I would input those articles into my spreadsheet."

Kansas high school theater teacher Alisha Morris created a database of coronavirus outbreaks in U.S. schools.
Alisha Morris

Morris started building a database on Aug. 6. She looked for news reports going back to July 1, since some schools had begun holding practices for fall sports or opening for administrative activities early in the summer.

Even with schools in only a few states back in session by early August, she had no trouble finding reports of coronavirus cases. Morris quickly logged cases at over 700 schools.

"I started feeling sort of shocked by what I was seeing and how many cases were already popping up in opening schools," she says. "That's when I decided that I should share it with some personal colleagues in Kansas and my district board of education. And their reactions are what really prompted me to share it on a wider scale with other teachers in the country."

By Aug. 23, when she handed off the project to NEA, she and volunteers working with her had logged over nearly 4,300 cases at more than 1,000 schools, which can be seen on the map above, created by one of the project volunteers.

According to the data she has collected, as of Aug. 23, Florida schools have seen the most cases, followed by Texas and Georgia. (The NEA is in the process of moving Morris' data to its tracker.)

Teachers began sharing Morris' database online. Soon, Morris started receiving submissions from viewers of the spreadsheet about cases she had missed. But she had to find a way to verify them: "I initially started with only putting information in that had to link with a local news article and the local news article was reporting from the quotes from the superintendent stating these certain things or similar things."

As she began to receive more submissions, Morris had to adapt her fact-checking process.

"People were actually submitting their own personal anecdotes about cases that hadn't been covered by the news," she says.

These submissions were sometimes screenshots of social media posts or parent emails sent by school administrators, which Morris believes are credible. She decided to create a dedicated section of the database for these kinds of reports, which she calls "unverified."

Morris and a small group of volunteers search for more information about those cases.

"We're still working on researching those unverified cases to see if articles pop up about them. But in the meantime, I've encouraged people to contact their local news outlets so that they can do some investigative journalism and see if they can find any affirmation that these cases were actually happening," she says.

And Morris believes that these unverified cases are an important piece of the puzzle.

"I absolutely get the suspicion based on the anecdotes that people have sent me, [that] there have been tons of schools that have been purposely trying to keep this on the down-low," she says.

She understands that schools are very worried about privacy, but, she says, "it does sort of create a bit of suspicion in the transparency. They will tell the close contacts and maybe the staff, but then they won't publicize it any further than that."

Finding a way to integrate these data into the project will give a better picture of how many elementary, middle and high schools are dealing with coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S.

Morris says she's relieved the NEA took note of the project and is hosting it. It has been hard keeping up with the cases, she says, and the NEA "has a team ready to go to keep the information up to date and to continue the community-driven efforts in order to get these cases logged."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep with the story of a teacher who wanted to learn. Alisha Morris was looking for data about corona virus outbreaks in schools. She had a simple question - how many cases are being reported in schools? How many last spring before schools shut down? How many this summer as schools begin to reopen? She found no overall source of information, so she made her own.

ALISHA MORRIS: I put in the words school, positive - and clicked on the news tab and would search the articles from the past week or the past 24 hours. And then I would input those articles into my spreadsheet.

INSKEEP: She soon made her database public. Teachers began sharing it, and Ms. Morris started crowdsourcing, taking tips from others. She soon had entries from every state except Delaware and Vermont. But she had to find a way to verify the information.

MORRIS: I initially started with only putting information in that had to link with a local news article. And the local news article was reporting quotes from the superintendent stating these certain things. So I mean, I guess there is a little bit of trust in that their information is fact-checked. However, once I started receiving articles from other people across the country, I started noticing that people were actually submitting their own personal anecdotes about cases that hadn't been covered by the news. And I struggled with a long time about whether I should put that into the sheet because it wasn't verified. It wasn't, you know, corroborated with an article link.

But I did feel like it was important to get that information out there, so I ultimately created a separate section for unverified cases that were reported by people anonymously. And in the meantime, I've encouraged people to contact their local news outlets so that they can do some investigative journalism and see if they can find any affirmation that these cases were actually happening.

INSKEEP: I'm sure that some schools are trying to be very open and transparent about this. But do you get a suspicion that some schools are less than forthcoming?

MORRIS: I absolutely get that suspicion, yes. Based on the anecdotes that people have sent me, there have been tons of schools that have been purposely trying to keep this on the down low. And I understand that for reasons of privacy, but it does, I guess, sort of create a bit of suspicion in the transparency. They will tell the close contacts and maybe the staff, but then they won't publicize it any further than that. So a lot of the submissions I received were screenshots of staff emails or parent emails telling about the case. But then when I went to go find an article about it, there wasn't anything about it.

INSKEEP: Just at the moment that we're recording this interview, I'm looking at your tallies here. You've heard from 700 schools, each of which has at least one reported coronavirus case since the beginning of the summer even though the school year is just barely getting underway. What do you make of that number?

MORRIS: I am pretty shocked by that number. It seems like quite a lot because there are so few schools that have even opened. The schools that are open are definitely making the news and the headlines and are reporting a mass amount of cases in their schools.

INSKEEP: Have you heard from any statisticians, epidemiologists, experts of other kinds with comments or advice?

MORRIS: Yes, actually. I have (laughter) - I have received quite a few offers for help. And I can actually tell you, I am officially transitioning the project over to the National Education Association.

INSKEEP: Hm.

MORRIS: Yeah. And so they're going to take over the project because I know for sure that I cannot keep this up at the magnitude that it's become.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's fantastic. Congratulations on getting noticed that way and turning it over to people who maybe can bring some resources to it as well.

MORRIS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: What does all of this make you think about the prospect of going back into school at some point?

MORRIS: I know that a lot of schools in Kansas have chosen to delay in order to see how the numbers are working in their community, but I suspect that they were also probably curious to see what would happen in the other states that opened up in early August. And I think that it's not a matter of if we get a case at our school. It's a matter of when we get a case at our school - what are we going to do?

INSKEEP: What are your personal feelings about going back in whenever the call comes there in Kansas?

MORRIS: I am anxious, but I will do what my district asks me to do. And I feel very lucky that they are a science-driven, data-informed district board that really cares about making the data-informed decision for their teachers and their students. And so I know that they will be very vigilant of the information that I have provided them and the other information in the community.

INSKEEP: Alisha Morris is a Kansas theater teacher and the creator of a database of coronavirus cases in schools. As she mentioned, the National Education Association, which is a teachers union, has now taken over management of the site. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.