D.C. Parents Are Tracking Their FOIA Request for Missing Data on Covid-19 in Schools and Daycare – Their Story Will Be A Teaching Tool in Upcoming Community Training
Sandra Moscoso | December 7, 2020 | Last modified: December 8, 2020
This piece was co-written and edited by DCOGC Board Members Sandra Moscoso and Miranda Spivack and Fritz Mulhauser.
Want to learn more about what the D.C. government and D.C. Council are doing? Interested in getting records and data about their work?
The D.C. Open Government Coalition will start an education and training program in the new year to help anyone interested in the city learn what information they are entitled to, and how to get it. In this blog post we begin the story of an attempt to get important information via the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) about the spread of the coronavirus in schools, daycares and other settings where students and teens gather. That’s because the city government has been less than candid about the spread of the virus in these settings, making it difficult for parents, teachers, and school employees to make decisions about how and when to return to the classroom.
We hope our experience trying to get this information will guide others – and that our education and training program will too. More about that in the near future.
For now, here’s Sandra’s story so far: I filed a FOIA request for Covid-19 cases and outbreaks in schools, daycares, and student support centers on Nov. 18. Like many other DC Public Schools (DCPS) parents, I have been concerned about unanswered questions as D.C. officials make decisions to allow reopening of schools and other places where children are together. I want to know the numbers about testing and cases among students and staff, those quarantined, and how those data change in coming weeks.
Back story: D.C. schools and the virus
DCPS announced on March 13, 2020 they would close for in-person instruction due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Learning losses are clear; but when will it be safe for teachers and students to return?
The D.C. education community – government officials, policymakers, teachers, principals, families, and school nurses – disagree about how and when schools should re-open. The D.C.Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in August issued 30 single-spaced pages of “guidance” on how to do it, but it didn’t settle the matter.
Every week, if not every day, there is a news article, opinion piece or national data dashboard about whether schools pose risks to students, teachers and their families. DCPS opened a limited number of classes in a limited number of schools for in-person learning on Nov. 18, yet at the time, DC Health had not informed the public of cases and outbreaks where children congregate – a critical data point parents and educators need to evaluate personal risk and answer the question: Is it safe to re-open schools for students?
On Monday, Dec. 7, DC Health heeded recommendations by the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor (ODCA) and released an “outbreaks by setting” report, which includes cumulative data about outbreaks in schools and daycares from Aug. 1 to Nov. 20. This is a good start, but it is limited: It does not include important information that families need to decide whether to allow their children to return, including testing, numbers of cases, numbers in quarantine, and more.
What this means is that D.C. families and educators face important and difficult decisions about whether to risk Covid-19 exposure but they must do so without detailed data about infection rates and outbreaks. So far, DC Health has not voluntarily released this data, so I am pursuing this data with another FOIA request.
Efforts to find out have been frustrating — the timeline begins:
- Nov. 16 — the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization (W6PSPO) met to share experiences of walk-throughs and concerns about the DCPS reopenings two days away. Schools’ plans had changed several times; facts were sparse, and therefore controversies arose about what’s best. Word had circulated that a DCPS principal was disciplined for even questioning assumptions on equipment readiness and other details of the plan.
- D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) was at the parents’ meeting. He agreed to follow up with D.C. Health to ask for specific data about Covid-19 cases in schools (and other settings for groups of children).
- Nov. 17 – Council member Allen included the Ward 6 group’s questions in the Council’s weekly list to the mayor’s office (an information system developed for the Covid-19 emergency to provide fast, on-the-record executive-branch answers to Council questions). The questions were:
- The number of cumulative and current active cases in the past seven days by setting, i.e., childcare center or school, including traditional public, charter, and private.
- The number of students and separately the number of staff currently in quarantine due to Covid-19 by childcare center or school, including traditional public, charter, and private.
- The number of deaths due to Covid-19 of either staff or students who were in in-person childcare centers or schools, including traditional public, charter, and private (this doesn’t mean they had to have contracted Covid-19 in this setting).
- The cumulative number of outbreaks in childcare centers or schools, including traditional public, charter, and private and the definition being used to define an outbreak.
- Is this data being collected and tracked through our Contact Tracing? Can this be publicly reported on a regular and ongoing basis, perhaps weekly? If not, why?
- Nov. 18 – Allen later told parents that staff from D.C. Health confirmed that they do collect Covid-19 data related to schools and daycares, but the agency isn’t publishing it.
- Nov. 18 – even so, the D.C. government’s coronavirus dashboard without fanfare started to include the number of cases and quarantines for students and staff at D.C. Public Schools (only). About 200 students returned to schools that day, far fewer than the school system predicted. No data are included in the dashboard on charter or private schools, daycares or student support centers, some of which have been open or partially open since the beginning of the school year.
- Nov. 18 – DC OGC board member and school parent Sandra Moscoso submitted a FOIA request to DC Health, acknowledged by the FOIA Portal, for the full set of data requested by Council member Allen.
- Nov. 23 – The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor (ODCA) issued recommendations for improved transparency on Covid-19 reporting, including “report new and cumulative COVID cases for all in person congregate settings for children, including all sectors of compulsory education (age 5 through 18)and all early childhood education and childcare centers (ages 0-5).”
- Dec. 2 – The mayor announced a new plan for testing even those without symptoms in the schools that are open – without a word about how the results will be shared.
- Dec. 3 – DC Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt, when questioned about data on infections at big events (called “Covid clusters”), said at a press conference that the agency will release those data “when people can understand it and it won’t be misconstrued,” according to a reporter’s tweet.
The D.C. Open Government Coalition wants your help too, D.C. residents and D.C. workers. Regardless of where you stand on how or when schools should reopen, parents, teachers, staff, and their families should have access to detailed and basic information before taking risks. Virus cases rise daily here and elsewhere; hospitals are stretched. More and more closings and preventive steps are under discussion. Yet families are also being asked to take the risk of school openings without a sense of what’s happening here with children at school and daycare.
Are there other data we should capture? For example, after submitting our FOIA request, we realized we should also ask for testing data. We would love your thoughts. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned to keep up with our request. And come to our class next year where we’ll break it all down.