Long Island superintendents and other education groups are concerned that the state's system for collecting school numbers for COVID-19 cases is subject to delays in reporting, inaccuracies and duplicate counts.
The educators' concerns focus on the state's newly launched online tool that posts the number of cases for schools, called the COVID-19 Report Card. The information dashboard — at https://schoolcovidreportcard.health.ny.gov/#/home — can be searched to find a school or district and learn the number of cases and other information, such as whether those infected are students or staffers. The state launched the site in early September to provide the public with more transparency about the level of virus in schools.
"I think we have to be concerned," said Ron Masera, superintendent of the Center Moriches school district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, regarding inaccuracies on the site. "We don't want to unnecessarily concern the public about our schools."
In response, the state has changed several aspects of the system: Schools — which must report cases to the state Health Department, the agency that manages the report card — must now verify cases with the county health department. Labs and testing sites must inquire as to whether a person attends or works for a school, and state health officials have urged schools to report any discrepancies in the report card.
The accuracy of the report card is important considering the strong public reaction to each new COVID-19 case in a school, said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. School officials worry that a misplaced case will be attributed to a school or district on the site — as recently occurred in an upstate school district — and parents will resent that the school did not alert them beforehand through an email blast or post on the school website, as they have been doing.
The report card, managed by the state Health Department, is supposed to be updated daily with information on cases that schools must provide to the department. Some Long Island school officials say they've reported cases to the state Health Department but didn't see the case appear on the report card for several days.
Bill Heidenreich, superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, said he reported a case in September that didn't turn up on the report card for five days.
"We let the community know. We sent out an email blast," said Heidenreich, who also serves as president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. "But a parent going on the (report card) website would not have seen it. They could think we're not being transparent."
Jill Montag, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said the report card is updated daily.
"The department recognizes the unprecedented challenges school districts are facing in response to this pandemic, but also how important this information is for families and for public health officials who use it to identify trends and plan a response," Montag said.
She added, "We are committed to working with our partners at all levels of education to ensure accurate and timely data input."
Syosset school officials said the report card had inaccuracies for the tally in that district Wednesday. The report card mistakenly listed three positives at Village Elementary School, where there were actually zero cases, and three cases at South Grove Elementary School, where there were two, said district spokeswoman Tricia Williams. It correctly listed one positive case on the Berry Hill Elementary School staff.
Elsewhere, Lowry pointed to one recent discrepancy regarding an upstate school district. Parents became alarmed because they saw a new case register on the state report card for the Watervliet City School District in Albany County, but they had not been notified by the district, he said.
"The parents were saying, 'Why didn't you tell us about it?'" Lowry said. "But the student actually attended a parochial school."
Labs report cases
In that case, the report came to the state from a laboratory, Lowry said. When labs report a student's positive case, the lab identifies the case location through the person's ZIP code. The state then assigns that to a school district, not an individual school, Lowry said.
But problems can arise because ZIP codes don't always match up with school district boundaries, he said. In addition, a student may live in a school district's boundaries but attend a parochial, private or charter school.
The state has since added some clarifying language to the report card regarding lab-reported cases, saying, "It may also include students residing within the district but who attend private schools or charter schools, not schools operated by the district itself."
Montag urged schools to reach out to the state when discrepancies occur.
"If school officials feel the information on the dashboard does not accurately reflect the numbers reported to the Department of Health, they should reach out to the department to verify," Montag said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced that the report card would include a separate category for positive cases from laboratories. This way, a parent can compare the number of cases reported by schools against those reported by labs, he said.
"So you’re going to have a check and a balance," Cuomo said.
Concerns over double counts
Some education officials also are concerned that double-counting might occur, since schools, labs and physicians report similar information about cases to the state.
Lowry noted that the great majority of New York schools do not conduct their own virus testing, so they obtain information on cases from other sources. A school may learn of a case through a parent or a staffer, as well as the county health department, which could result in a double-count when schools report to the state.
"Sadly, parents could see inflated numbers, making them more upset," said Jay Worona, deputy executive director of the state School Boards Association.
Long Island is a particular concern since it has only two county health departments to work with over 600 schools, unlike other places in the state that have far fewer schools in their county, Lowry said.
He said the problems so far have been few and manageable, but he worries that issues could arise with the arrival of colder weather and more cases.
To address concerns, the state has mandated that laboratories and testing sites ask if a person attends or works at a specific school in New York. Also, schools must now validate each case with the county health department.
Reporting cases: How it works
All schools must report COVID-19 data to the state daily. The state moved back the daily deadline for a school to report a case, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. School officials had complained that 3 p.m. is among the busiest times of the day due to dismissals.
Should schools not report, they face a range of financial and professional sanctions, Montag said.
Mary Ellen Laurain, spokeswoman for the Nassau County Department of Health, explained the department's role. In many instances, the county health department obtains information on a confirmed case through the New York State electronic reporting system. Health care providers and labs are required to report positive findings through this system.
The county health department contacts the positive individual to begin a case investigation. If the person attends or works for a school, the department notifies the school.
The county health department then begins contact tracing, working with the person and school to identify and alert people who were in close contact with the person, she said.
In some instances, a parent or staffer notifies a school of a case. The school, in turn, reaches out to confirm it with the county health department.
"This is a novel disease. There's a lot of questions," Laurain said. "The department of health is here to help answer them."
With Carol Polsky
Reading the COVID-19 Report Card
The COVID-19 Report Card presents a variety of information on schools and districts, such as the number of positive infections and the percentage of staff and students who test positive.
The site details the total number of new cases for each school, the total since early September, as well as the totals for the past week and two weeks. It also details whether the school or district is working remotely, in-person, or under a hybrid plan, which is a mix of in-person and remote learning.
BOCES students are enrolled in their home school district. The state is working through technical issues to prevent double counting, and then it will add BOCES to the dashboard, said Jill Montag, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health.
Here's how to use the tracker:
Once on the website, choose from several categories, including public schools, charter schools, private schools, higher education institutions and the State Universities of New York. For data on a specific public school or district, click on the box that says "Public Schools."
Then, search by typing in either the name of their school or district, or a residential address. Once the user starts typing in the search box, a drop-down menu will appear offering choices.
Assuming the user selects a school district, they can scroll down for information on the district. There, they can also click on individual schools within that district for more information.
The site also identifies whether the cases are students or staffers, and the percentage of the district staff and students who test positive. It does not identify individuals.