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School district’s COVID reporting assailed for lack of transparency

Updated August 30, 2021 - 7:18 am

There have been more than 1,100 reported COVID-19 cases among students and employees of the Clark County School District this month, but officials won’t say how many of them occurred since school resumed on Aug. 9.

District officials are coming under increasing criticism for being tight-lipped about the situation in schools and for a reporting system that critics say leaves parents and employees largely in the dark when it comes to determining how fast the disease caused by the new coronavirus is spreading.

That information is important, they say, particularly as the more-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus continues to hold sway, creating a greater risk of infection in crowded schools — a possibility recognized by the district in its face mask mandate.

As of late Friday, the district’s online case dashboard showed 1,338 cases involving 755 students, 371 school staff and 212 central office staff since July 1. Of those, 1,106 — nearly 83 percent — occurred in August, according to the dashboard, but it’s unclear how many happened after classes resumed because the software doesn’t break out that data.

Nor does it provide any information about schools that have reported fewer than 10 COVID-19 cases or the number of individuals quarantined after possible exposure to the disease.

The district’s communications team did not respond to a request for information on how many of those cases have been reported since school resumed.

Parents, educators and others have voiced frustration about the lack of detailed case information for individual school campuses and what they say is poor communication from the school district. Complaints also were aired at Thursday’s School Board meeting about the accuracy and timeliness of the dashboard data.

Trustee Lisa Guzman — who represents a zone that includes Lamping Elementary School in Henderson, which has been operating under distance education after experiencing “multiple” COVID-19 cases — said parents and educators had complained to her that the district’s online case dashboard continued to show zero cases at the school after the closure of the building on Aug. 17. As of Friday, the dashboard it showed fewer than 10 cases at the school since July 1.

‘Something we need’

“We need to be aware that visuals matter,” Guzman said of the delay in updating the data.

“I think that parents come to our website for information about their school,” she added. “I feel like this is something we need.”

The school district, which has more than 308,000 students and approximately 42,000 employees, resumed full-time in-person classes three weeks ago, with distance education options available for families who opt in. Before that, it provided distance education for a year because of the pandemic before reopening buildings for some in-person classes in the spring.

Board President Linda Cavazos said she would need to consult Superintendent Jesus Jara on the timing of a COVID-19 data presentation. She also said there had been recent changes to the case dashboard, including how often it is updated.

Guzman said she also wants to know the criteria for closing a school building, adding that she supported the decision to transition to distance education at Lamping.

Jara told the Review-Journal earlier this month there’s no districtwide threshold and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Several teachers also criticized the district at the School Board meeting and urged more transparency about the numbers of COVID-19 cases at individual schools.

Among them was Jim Frazee, a high school teacher and vice president of the Clark County Education Association teachers union, who told the board his comments would focus on “this disaster of a reopening.”

Frazee said he and others were eagerly anticipating reopening schools for in-person instruction, and the teachers union lobbied in Carson City and successfully brought back millions of dollars to help facilitate a safe reopening.

Instead, he said, the district has left educators “out to dry.”

“This reopening, teachers feel betrayed,” he said.

“Superintendent Jara, you asked us to judge you on your actions. Be careful what you ask for.”

COVID-19 cases

The district is providing some information, though less than many other districts, including Washoe County.

The online COVID-19 case dashboard includes case numbers districtwide and for individual campuses with at least 10 cases in total.

Overall data shows the number of cases since July 1, broken down by employees and students, and a total number of cases for the current week and month.

Jara told the Review-Journal this month the district doesn’t plan to release quarantine data, citing privacy concerns.

When the newspaper initially requested data about case numbers and quarantines from the district’s communications office, it was told to file a public records request.

The newspaper filed two requests — one for the first week of school and one for the second — seeking weekly case numbers among students and employees, a list of schools affected by cases or quarantines and the numbers of each.

The district responded Thursday, saying, “The district does not have a document with this information” that linked to the district’s online dashboard.

The Review-Journal received the same response to a public records request seeking the number of employee COVID-19 tests administered during the first two weeks of school and of those, the number of positive results.

Parent Heather Chmielewski, who has two children in district schools, is among those frustrated by the data provided.

She said she knows the district’s website allows for searching individual school case numbers, but “from what I can tell it’s just not very accurate,” she said.

Chmielewski said there is nowhere for parents to go to get information to give them a sense of the COVID-19 situation at their child’s school — whether things are OK with the usual safety protocols or whether parents should keep a closer eye on the situation.

“I know privacy is a huge thing,” she said, but noted she doesn’t think parents want to know the names of those who tested positive. “But I feel like there’s no information.”

Chmielewski also noted that email notifications to parents are so vague and don’t specify whether it was an employee or student who tested positive. If someone in her daughter’s elementary school classroom tested positive but her child wasn’t deemed a close contact, “I would not be informed.”

Pediatrician weighs in

Dr. David Di John, an associate professor of pediatrics at UNLV’s Kerkorian School of Medicine, said there has been a “disturbingly large number” of COVID-19 cases in the school district — “a reflection of what’s going on in the community at large.”

He also said he’s shocked by how many adolescents aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, despite being eligible for months.

Looking at mortality rates due to COVID-19, “They’re certainly a lot lower in children” than adults, Di John said, but “it’s not zero mortality.”

The Southern Nevada Health District has reported 37,148 cases, 358 hospitalizations and five deaths among children.

Children can become significantly ill from COVID-19, particularly, if they have underlying health conditions such as being overweight, or have diabetes or asthma, Di John said.

There’s also the possibility of post-infection complications such multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, he said. The Southern Nevada Health District has reported 76 cases.

Di John said he can’t speak for the school district, but doesn’t know why officials wouldn’t be more open about case numbers.

He said he doesn’t think there any serious violations that would occur, with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or otherwise, by releasing data on which schools are having problems.

But Di John acknowledged that “schools are kind of in a difficult situation.”

Many district policies and procedures were developed when COVID-19 case numbers were declining and optimism about the prospect of reopening schools was running high, he said.

Now, Di John said, people are scrambling and trying to figure out what to do, including how many cases should trigger a school closure and how many people need to be quarantined.

“This has to be very, very difficult for the school district to manage,” he said, something that people should consider when offering up criticism, he added.

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Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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