Wake schools adjust dashboard of coronavirus information, but questions remain
Posted December 2, 2020 8:47 p.m. EST
Updated December 2, 2020 9:15 p.m. EST
Cary, N.C. — The Wake County Public School System has provided a few more details about coronavirus cases in area schools, but officials say they still have questions about whether the virus is spreading in classrooms as more students resume in-person instruction.
The change comes after WRAL News reported how little information the district provided to parents and the public about virus cases in Wake County schools compared with other school districts.
Previously, the district's online dashboard listed only the number of coronavirus cases confirmed by school and, occasionally, if any of the cases could be linked. The cases aren't broken down by students or staff, and there was no information about any quarantines.
Now, the district breaks down how many overall cases are among students versus staff. For example, the dashboard noted that 31 of the 55 infections reported last week were among staffers, with the remaining 24 among students.
“It is important to our community that, if our schools are going to be open, that they be safe," Superintendent Cathy Moore said.
Officials said they previously shared less virus-related information than other districts for legal reasons.
Some say the new numbers have holes, however. In a recent meeting, school board members shared their concerns that merely reporting numbers doesn't show how and where the virus is spreading.
“Why did we get those letters? Why did we hear someone was positive and that never follows through?” board member Heather Scott asked.
School board member Jim Martin questioned why there were more infections among staff members than students week after week when students far outnumber staff members.
“It suggests to me staff are reporting, but students are not necessarily reporting," Martin said. "That seems to corroborate at least one email the board received this week from a family that was convinced their child contracted COVID from school."
The questions highlight a shortcoming in the district's response to the virus: contact tracing.
Tracing is currently an information-sharing operation between county health workers and the school district. Moore said she is exploring bringing the process in house.
"We are talking with the county about, can we do what you do so that we can have it done more quickly and in a manner to build that confidence?” she said.
It will mean more work, and it will cost an undetermined amount of money.
"We would need additional personnel to do it," Moore said. "We cannot do it without additional personnel. We would need to hire folks specifically and train them to do contact tracing."
Dr. Daniel Benjamin, co-chairman of the ABC Science Collaborative that pairs scientists with education leaders to provide information on the virus in schools, said school-based infections will be missed by tracers.
"A lot more people have had COVID-19 than have had a positive test. We know that is true in general, and if so, it is probably true in schools," said Benjamin, Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine.
He said expanded testing would be needed to get a better idea of cases in schools, adding that the virus will continue to be an issue in schools for "a couple of years" because vaccines won't be available to students until extensive testing has been done to determine whether the vaccines now in development are safe and effective on children.