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More Data, Less Transparency

Sandra Moscoso | December 17, 2020

This piece was written by DCOGC Board Member Sandra Moscoso and edited by Board Member Miranda Spivack.

This post is part of a series that will become a case study in the D.C. Open Government Coalition’s 2021 open government education and training program. We will post information early next year about how to enroll.

In the meantime, follow us on Twitter at @DCOGC, our Facebook page, and our new Instagram account to get word of each installment in this search for information about Covid and its impact on schools, day cares, and other places children gather.

Update on the FOIA request

Data and context matter. Last week, I wrote about a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request I submitted to the D,C, government on Nov. 18 requesting data about Covid-19 cases and outbreaks in schools, daycares, and student support centers. On Dec. 7, DC Health’s General Counsel and FOIA Officer responded that they have begun to search for this information and expect that the “deadline for a final response” to the request is set to “January 25, 2021.” But there was a caveat: that deadline could be extended if Mayor Muriel Bowser opts to extend the public health emergency. They also could reduce the time period if the mayor ends the public health emergency before Dec. 31. (We’re keeping a timeline of the responses to this FOIA request and the city’s action – you can find it at the end of each post in this series.)

The response and deadline are no surprise, given that DC has said it has a  FOIA backlog because it imposed  (and recently lifted) a suspension of the 15-day deadline for FOIA responses. But the delays can be dangerous. The need for this data is urgent. Families are being asked (via DCPS school-level surveys) today to decide whether they are willing to send children to school for in-person experiences, but they must do so without a complete picture of the spread of the pandemic in those places. Teachers are being told by DCPS that they will be “guaranteed a virtual assignment only if they have a protected leave category via FMLA or ADA” – they, too, are being forced to make decisions affecting their health and career, without the benefit of clear data that show the risks they face.

In the meantime, more data does not equal more transparency

DC Health, DC Public Schools and DC charter schools are all publishing incomplete pieces of the picture of Covid-19 infections in places where children congregate. I explored a few data sources I’m aware of and quickly realized how difficult it is to get a sense of numbers of cases and the spread of the pandemic.

  • Source 2: DC Health visualizes an aggregate of total positives by age/gender daily, and lets you download the aggregate positives by age from the tableau visualization, but to see the daily change in cases by age, you have to download the total data daily. Oddly, DC Health does let you download a daily breakdown of “Lives Lost by Age”… but not cases. Why not?

Source 3: DC Health now publishes a weekly update of outbreaks by setting, including “childcare/daycare” and “K12 school building settings.”

However, while the US Department of Education advises “schools may disclose the number of students who have COVID-19 to parents and students in the school community without prior written consent…provided that the information the school shares with parents and students does not allow for any individual student to be identified,” none of the above DC Health sources identify the childcare or school.

Per a local schools reporter, “DC isn’t releasing school by school covid data like other states. They say it’s b/c schools w/ cases could be ostracized , and fear it would discourage reporting data.” 

The above rationale is tough to follow, as the data is out there in some form – you can find which DCPS have had positive cases, if you look at letters to families published by DCPS (Source 4).

For example, between Dec. 11 and Dec. 14 (Source 2), staff and student positive cases jumped from 18 to 25, and persons in quarantine jumped from 13 to 73. Presumably, these cases are tied to the seven schools which alerted families of cases on Dec. 14 and Dec. 15 (Source 4).

Outside of DCPS, there is very little transparency about cases in schools. To learn about cases in DC charter schools, you can try your luck on each individual local education agency (LEA) website (Sources 5-75). 

But here’s another problem: I could not find a centralized place to learn about private schools or child care centers.

And while publishing case data is important, it really means very little without context. How many students are currently in-person at the above facilities? How much testing has been conducted? How big are the outbreaks?

Data matters and context matters. Today, families and educators have little data and almost no context.

Beyond the Data: Transparency in Decision-Making 

The first two posts in this series have focused primarily on data. Open government requires more. For example, how are decisions being made? How do LEAs (local education agencies) determine the numbers of students they want to welcome back and when? Who weighs in? How are the inputs of individual school communities (administrators, teachers, families, students, ++) factored in? Who provides oversight?

For example, on page 7 of the Council Period 23 Report of the Committee of the Whole (CoW) Report, Chairman Phil Mendelson writes, “The Committee has also worked to understand the learning loss students have experienced during the pandemic and what strategies the District should pursue to mitigate it. Recognizing that the pandemic is an unprecedented situation and that alleviating substantial learning loss would require innovative, yet proven methods, the Committee assembled a taskforce of public education experts and researchers in May 2020. For the past six months, the Committee has met regularly with the taskforce and gained a deeper understanding of the learning loss that is occurring in the District. The taskforce has also identified strategies that have been used to ease the learning loss that occurs annually over summer break and ways to adapt those strategies to the current situation. The Committee has used this information to guide its oversight of DCPS and public charter schools’ mitigation efforts. Moreover, recommendations from this taskforce helped guide the Committee’s budget priorities for the fiscal year 2021 budget.”

A task force. Who knew? Who is on this task force? When have they met? Are there minutes? What recommendations have been issued? And of course, can the above information be requested via a Freedom of Information Act request?

More on this in future posts.

We would love your thoughts. Write us at Stay tuned to keep up with our request. And come to our class next year where we’ll break it all down. Details soon.

Timeline (for those playing along):

  • Dec. 15 – Council Period 23 Report of the Committee of the Whole report issued.
  • Dec. 14 – Councilmember Silverman introduced “Pandemic Learning Emergency Act of 2020”, which “Requires transparency in specific education and public health data related to in-person learning, including COVID test results by school.”
  • Dec. 7 – DC Health’s General Counsel and FOIA Officer responded that a search has started and the “deadline for a final response” for the request is set to “January 25, 2021, subject to extension should the Mayor extend the public health emergency and subject to reduction should the Mayor terminate the public health emergency earlier than December 31, 2020.”
  • 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
  • Dec. 2 – DC Council Committee of the Whole & the Committee on Education Public Roundtable on Return to In-person Instruction in DC Public Schools
  • 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.
  • 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).”
  • 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. 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 – 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. 17 – Councilmember 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., child care 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. 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. Councilmember 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).