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Number Of COVID-19 Cases At Many Texas School Districts Will Likely Be Left Out Of State Data For Weeks To Come

A supply station in Taylor Oliver's pre-k classroom at Big Country Elementary on Aug. 22, 2019.
File Photo |Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio

There’s no way to know how many coronavirus cases are in many Texas school districts right now.

The state health and education agencies are slated to release its third week of district-level data Thursday, but policies implemented by the agencies last week will likely leave many districts out of the report for weeks to come.

The first district-level report, released Sept. 23, had to be pulled because it contained numerous errors. When the agencies reissued the report a week later, hundreds of districts — many with previously reported cases — were hidden from the district-level count.

The new report stated that the case counts for districts with less than 50 students on campus were hidden to protect privacy, but the report actually suppressed the count of any district that started the year with less than 50 students in the classroom.

The policy leaves the public in the dark about case numbers in more than 300 districts statewide, including most of the state’s large, urban school systems. Many districts that started the year remotely now have students in the classroom.

What don’t we know?

We don’t know how many students and staff are infected at more than 300 districts statewide, including districts in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

We also don’t know if any districts have clusters of cases. The state is only collecting the number of cases district wide, which means we have no way of knowing if multiple cases have been reported at the same school.

Why is the state hiding some district case counts?

Schools often hide data that can be personally identifiable, but standard practice is to suppress counts that are less than 10, not 50.

In an initial conversation, TEA spokesman Jake Kobersky said the state agencies used a higher count because the data is broken down by grade level for new student cases. However, the state is also suppressing the count of new staff cases and the cumulative case count, making it impossible to know how many cases have been reported in some districts even for statistics that are unlikely to be identifiable.

Why is the state using outdated enrollment data?

It’s also unclear why TEA and the Texas Department of State Health Services are using on-campus enrollment data that doesn’t reflect the current reality on campus. It seems logical that the district official charged with notifying the state of positive case counts each week would also be able to tell the state how many students they had on campus that week.

What does the data we have available tell us?

The reports include all case counts at the state level, including cases that were hidden in district level reports. Based on that data, we know 9,857 coronavirus cases have been reported to Texas public school since the beginning of the school year, representing less than 1% of all students and staff.

We also know almost 80% of Texas students started the school year remotely.

And almost 30% of the coronavirus cases reported to schools last week came from districts that had their case counts suppressed by the state. The state-level report for the week ending Sept. 27 included 2,309 cases, 647 more cases than the district-level report.

What will happen in future reports?

According to the Texas Education Agency, this week’s district-level report will also hide the case count for any district that started the year with less than 50 students on campus, even if the district has thousands of students currently on campus. In an emailed response to questions submitted by TPR, TEA said school systems “with an on-campus enrollment of 50 or less will continue to have their case counts suppressed” in future reports.

Next week’s report will be based on the number of students on campus during the fourth week of school, but the updated enrollment will still be weeks behind the current enrollment picture for many districts, leaving the public with limited information based on outdated statistics.

**In San Antonio, for instance, the North East Independent School District started remotely Aug. 17. The district of about 65,000 students had no students on campus the first week of school, but started slowly phasing in a return to campus Sept. 8 and now has more than 16,000 students on campus district wide.**

TEA guidelines allowed districts to stay remote for the first four weeks without applying for a waiver, so many districts will likely still be suppressed even using the updated enrollment.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.