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More Schools Soon to Reopen in District, but Unclear What Data Being Used

Sandra Moscoso | January 29, 2021

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 upcoming D.C. Open Government Coalition’s open government education and training program. 

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-19 and its impact on schools, day cares, and other places children gather. 

Update on the FOIA request

The good news is that there’s an update from DC Health about my request for data on Covid-19 testing and outbreaks in schools and other settings where children congregate The bad news is that the deadline for my request has been extended to Mar. 31 – long after schools are to have reopened. 

Re-opening metrics: Every neighboring district has them, except DC

Screenshots of metrics published by Montgomery County, Fairfax County, Arlington County, Prince George’s County, and Alexandria City public schools.

On Jan. 21, DC Council’s Committee of the Whole held a public hearing on “Re-Opening District of Columbia Public Schools.” Many  who testified bemoaned the lack of transparency about the decision-making process. Witnesses asked DC Health and DC Public Schools’ to share the metrics they will use to decide whether to reopen or close.  All of DCPS’ neighboring districts: Montgomery County Public Schools, Prince George’s County Public Schools, Arlington County Public Schools, Fairfax County Public Schools and Alexandria City Public Schools have established and published the metrics they are using to guide their plans. 

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George pointed to the need for regional coordination to battle the virus, asking DC Health official Dr. Ankoor Shah, “what is DC’s metric for when it’s safe to open schools?” Dr. Shah said that unlike all neighboring districts, DC Health does not rely on metrics to make decisions around reopening (see video at 4:32:43 through 4:34:32 markers). Maybe that’s why none are being published. But if they don’t rely on metrics, what are they using to make these crucial decisions? And what is the scope of testing, cases, and outbreaks in the 75 DC Public Schools (per this crowdsourced dataset maintained by education expert, Dr. Betsy Wolf) that have already partly reopened? We can’t ask the same of charters or private schools, because there is no public dataset or website identifying who is or who isn’t offering in-person school.

It has been 70 days since I submitted a FOIA request to DC Health for data related to cases and outbreaks in settings where children congregate. In that time, positive cases in the District have almost doubled (19,678 positive tests on Nov. 18, 2020 to 36,132 positive tests on Jan. 27, 2021). In that same time period, 235 lives have been lost.

As Dr. Shah told the Committee of the Whole at the Council  “Re-opening” hearing, DC Health is confident in DCPS’ school safety measures. Presumably, this confidence is grounded in data, but this data is not being made available to the public, or (as we learned in the same hearing) to DC Councilmembers.

I have been downloading snapshots of Total Cases by Age and Gender from because as I wrote in December, “to see the daily change in cases by age, you have to download the total data daily.”  Between Dec. 24 and Jan. 19 children, positive cases among adolescents  (ages 0-19) have increased by 26 percent, (and by 30.8 percent if we look at Jan. 28 numbers). If you have questions about the missing context, you are not alone…

Still the school system plans to open more schools for in-person classes in a few days – by Monday, Feb. 1. Not all teachers have been fully inoculated. Mandatory walkthroughs of buildings are yielding (in some cases) unmet HVAC and plumbing maintenance requirements. 

None of this is good news. DC Health officials say they advise DCPS to use recommendations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to minimize the risk of infection. However, these safety measures are only part of the picture, as CDC school reopening guidance also include “indicators for dynamic school decision-making.” Will DC join our neighboring districts in letting the public know what those are?

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

Timeline (for those following along):

  • Jan. 21 – DC Health’s General Counsel and FOIA Officer sent an update that the deadline for my request has been extended to March 31, 2021.
  • 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 – 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., 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?
  • 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. 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.