OLATHE (AP) — Like a lot of teachers in the middle of a pandemic, Alisha Morris is anxious. Worried not only for students and teachers in her own district, which starts class next week, but for schools across the country.
So from her apartment in Johnson County, the Olathe West theater teacher began searching online for news stories about COVID-19 cases in schools.
What she discovered was depressing — and ultimately grabbed national headlines. In that first week alone in early August, she found about 330 schools across the country dealing with COVID-19. She also heard from teachers who fear the unknowns about what’s going to happen when they go back to their classrooms and whether enough people will be told about COVID-19 cases in schools, The Kansas City Star reported.
“There were only three or four states that were even having school and there were already cases, which is why the information was so shocking in the first place,” Morris said.
She plotted the information on a spreadsheet and shared her unique tracker on her personal Facebook page and a page for Kansas teachers. The data quickly made the rounds on other Facebook pages for teachers around the country, and people volunteered to help her track cases, which ran into the thousands.
The crowd-sourced effort drew attention from the national media, including The Washington Post, Good Morning America and NPR.
“I’ve always been kind of a spreadsheet nerd,” Morris told the Kansas National Education Association, which also featured her on its website. “I thought it would be a productive use of my time, waiting for school to start.”
The national NEA took notice, too, and last week the union took over the project, calling it a “snapshot of coronavirus outbreaks” in U.S. public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade.
It lists confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19, and deaths state by state, with a goal of protecting “educators, students, and their families from unsafe reopening policies,” the NEA website said.
“I just wanted to see what patterns I could find because I had already seen high schools were reporting a lot of cases,” Morris said, who was happy to hand off the labor-intensive project.
As she read hundreds of news stories about COVID-19 and schools, she saw that as the medical experts have warned from the beginning, COVID-19 is indiscriminate, though clearly there were more cases reported in high schools than grade schools.
Studies show younger kids are less likely to get COVID-19 than older students, one reason many districts are letting grade schoolers return to classrooms. The data shows younger children are not driving the pandemic.
Morris found cases of the virus infecting “student athletes, teachers there for pre-service, custodians — quite a few — administrators, superintendents, food workers, and transportation drivers, like bus drivers,” before most districts had even opened, she said.
“Through my findings, and please note, this is all speculation. I don’t have any hard facts or percentages in mind, but the one thing that became clear is that no age group is immune to this,” she said. “I logged cases at almost every grade level. I remember specifically, a second-grade class where a second-grader tested positive and the whole class had to quarantine.
“I will say there have been significantly more cases in the high school area. And I’ve seen a lot come through sports teams.”
Teacher colleagues wished her luck in keeping up with the cases as schools open their doors.
“It’s only going to get worse from here,” they warned.
“Those aren’t very fun things to hear,” Morris said.
Her time in the national spotlight began in a most humble way, with Morris cuddled up on her sofa with her laptop and cat, tapping away “on a researching and logging spree,” she said.
“My fiancé would ask me if I wanted dinner and I would hardly hear him because I was so focused. I skipped a lot of meals and just constantly felt the need to search for every case I could find. The new cases also kept piling up day by day. I think my fiancé is very glad that I passed the project off.”
She searched for cases dating back to March, but 80 percent of the cases on the spreadsheet were from July 1 though August, she said. By the time she handed over the project to the NEA, she and volunteers from more than 40 states had listed nearly 4,300 cases in more than 1,000 schools.
“At first they were just teachers helping,” she said. “But then as the publicity expanded I had all sorts of people helping. Retired teachers, counselors, social workers, stay-at-home moms.”
Morris, a former speech and debate coach, began by collecting only information from verifiable sources, such as news stories. She added the links to the spreadsheet.
“But then people started sending in their own personal anecdotes,” she said. “They were like, ‘This isn’t published anywhere but I just got this email from my principal. And I sent it to (a local news outlet), but they won’t write an article about it.”
Some people sent screenshots of social media posts.
“When people started sending in screenshots of their emails from their principals, or parent emails, I was just like … there’s a lot more going on that’s not being covered in news articles,” she said. “What’s my moral obligation here?
“Should I put these in there knowing they could be conjecture? Or should I not because they’re not supported with a verifiable source? And I ultimately started putting them in, but as an unverified source, so that people could still see it if they wanted, but they had to take it with a grain of salt.
“I had so many people tell me this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more cases than what you have on your spreadsheet, because I know of five that aren’t on your spreadsheet right now.”
Issues of transparency
She found so many instances of COVID-19 cases that never made the news she began to suspect “a lot of districts are trying to hide their cases, or at least sweep them under the rug. And they’re claiming it’s because of privacy reasons.”
KNEA spokesman Marcus Baltzell said he doesn’t think school districts or administrators are trying to cover up cases. It’s more an issue of what schools are, and are not, legally mandated to report, he said.
In Kansas, for instance, “there is a state statute that requires reporting to local health authorities, which means the local health departments, in the case of any infectious or contagious diseases,” such as measles, chickenpox, and now COVID-19, Baltzell said.
“And the obligation is for the district, for the school administration, to notify the county health department … and then it’s the health department’s responsibility to follow up.”
In the De Soto school district in Johnson County, superintendent Frank Harwood said schools’ response to positive cases is “an evolving part of the plan.” Harwood helped develop the state of Kansas’ guidance for schools.
“In most cases, we have plans in place where we wouldn’t have to close an entire building for a single positive case,” he told The Star early last month. “But we also know at some point we might come to a decision where a particular building should close to not risk further exposure in the community.”
In Kansas, school officials can close buildings for several days in the event of a positive case; county health officials are expected to help them with contact tracing.
Guidance for Missouri public schools created by the state health and education departments, includes assigned seating charts to help identify anyone who might come in contact with an infected student, and designating a point person in schools to help public health officials with contact tracing.
From news accounts across the country, Morris has the impression that even some school boards are not notified of COVID-19 cases in their schools.
“People want this data and what’s why my spreadsheet became so viral so fast, because they know it’s not being reported and they know that … it’s a tricky situation,” she said.
“We need some kind of mandate that says schools, you have to let everybody in your community know. Whether it’s a news article or in a Facebook post. I don’t care. You just have to let people know.”
‘Feeling so in the dark’
Her project tapped into something deeper than just data. “The stories that stuck out to me were the ones where teachers would submit anecdotes to me anonymously about how helpless they felt,” she said.
“They knew that cases were happening at their school, but they weren’t being informed. I can only imagine the terror they must have felt — feeling so in the dark.”
She found that many schools only notify people who come in immediate contact with people who have tested positive, “and those are the people who are then asked to quarantine.”
“So it seems as though schools are trying to avoid shutting down as much as possible. I remember back last spring when we were thinking what’s going to happen in the fall, at what point does the school shut down? And we were (thinking), ‘Oh man, one case. Just one case and they have to shut it down, right?’
“I’m not seeing that across the country. They are fighting against all odds to try and keep the schools open.
“There haven’t been too many elementary schools that have closed down. But there have been a lot of high schools that have closed down because they had so many cases.
“So I think the question is, what’s our threshold? A lot of that is so unknown.
“I think schools really need to have that figured out because it’s appearing as if it’s not if we have a COVID case, it’s when we have a COVID case. What will we do when we have one? I think it’s inevitable.”