INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Nearly two months after Indiana officials said they would release a public dashboard to help track coronavirus cases among students and teachers, the online tool still lacks data from more than 1,000 schools.
Unveiled on the state health department's website last week, the new dashboard reflects the new and cumulative numbers of positive COVID-19 cases among students, teachers and other workers in a given school. The latest round of data, updated in the dashboard Monday afternoon, reflects at least 2,845 positive COVID-19 cases in schools around the state since the new school year started this fall.
But the dashboard's numbers provide only a partial picture of COVID-19's spread in schools. As of Thursday, 1,067 schools — nearly 40% of those in the state — still have not submitted information to the database.
Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said during a news conference Wednesday that “technical issues” are part to blame for the lag in reporting. Health department officials are additionally working to remove duplicate data entries, which takes time, Box said.
“We are continuing to work with some schools that have encountered difficulty actually accessing the portal and giving us information,” Box said. “We’re also working with those schools that we have not seen any attempts for the data yet, but I think most importantly our schools have been very overwhelmed with trying to keep up with contact tracing, reporting cases, helping us to quarantine individuals, and making sure that their students have food for those times that the students are virtual.”
At the dashboard's initial release, only 1,359 schools had reported their COVID-19 statistics. In the past week, 396 more schools contributed data, adding 491 new COVID-19 cases and bringing the total up to 1,755 schools reporting.
Current data shows 944 schools have reported one or more cases, and 811 have reported no cases. Students make up the majority of the reported cases, with 1,192 cases, with another 406 cases reported among the state’s teachers and 447 cases in other staff members.
Still, because the reporting by schools is voluntary, the state dashboard numbers won’t fully capture cases. If school participation becomes an issue, Box has warned the state may consider making it mandatory for district leaders to report their data, although she hasn't said that's been an issue yet.
Even after more schools report data, the dashboard also doesn’t list the percentage of those within schools testing positive for COVID-19, known as the positivity rate. That data point is used by Indiana officials in the state's color-coded, county-by-county rating system to gauge the severity of virus spread and to help determine potential mitigation plans. While state health experts have said the new school tracker is intended to help local leaders make similar decisions — such as when to open or close school buildings — Box has not indicated whether that metric will be added to the dashboard.
Schools reporting fewer than five positive cases additionally have their data suppressed to protect privacy, which so far is the case for a majority of schools that have reported COVID-19 cases to the database.
The tracker’s release follows concerns from health experts over sharp increases in COVID-19 cases among Indiana’s younger population groups, as well as nearly two months of pushback from journalists and educators about a need for more state transparency regarding the spread of the virus in schools.
Data in the dashboard is now scheduled to be updated each week. Box emphasized again Wednesday that case totals are likely to continue increasing as more schools submit their data in the coming weeks.
“I feel confident that the schools that are reporting are giving us very good data and information," Box said. "We’re really working in partnership with them and expected that this would take a number of weeks before all schools would be reporting and giving us information.”
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.