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actual science COVID-19 Education LPS

We Don’t Really Know if COVID is Spreading in Lincoln Schools

Seeing Red Nebraska loves Nebraska’s public schools.  In particular, we love LPS.  Some of us work for them, some of us work with them, and many of us have school age children who attend LPS.  This does not mean they are beyond reproach or scrutiny.  Indeed, it is because we value them so dearly that we offer this critique and hold them to a high standard. 

On October 8th, the Lincoln Journal Star reported over 200 cases of SARS-CoV-2 (covid19) in staff/students at LPS.  Considering that the district has over 40,000 students and thousands of teachers and that elementary and middle school are all above 65% capacity (based on homeschooling and remote learning numbers) and that high schools are not at more than 50% (due to a 3/2 rotating schedule) this is a success in some ways.  Everything we know about the spread of covid19 so far indicates it has almost twice the infection rate as the flu (in addition to being far more deadly). These low numbers that plateaued a couple weeks ago and have remained steady (approximately 40 new cases a week for the last 3 weeks) are a testament to the work and diligence of students, teachers, and staff.  There are reasons to be concerned, however, about how LPS is reporting on this virus.

First, the LPS dashboard is close to useless.  Every state and county health department publishes a menagerie of covid19 tracking data each and every day.  It doesn’t matter how small the county is, if you go to any Nebraska Public Health Department you will see a dashboard that includes some key metrics, including daily positive cases. Most have breakdowns by gender and age, and some have the percent of hospital beds in use including ICU beds and ventilators.  Indeed, the second largest employer in Lincoln, UNL–which has a student body almost as large as LPS–has its own dashboard where at the bare minimum they report a history of daily positive cases (including a rolling 7 day average) that is updated each and every day.  

What does LPS report on their covid19 dashboard?  Three metrics: a one-week snapshot of the positive cases (only for 7 days) for the week before, a Wednesday snapshot of the number of teachers quarantined, and a Wednesday snapshot of the proportion of students reported ill.  They don’t show a history; they don’t show trends; they don’t show anything by school.  Worst of all, they don’t track daily positive cases.  Instead, for all of the first quarter, LPS periodically reports numbers by school to Margaret Reist at the Lincoln Journal Star, and they only report school-level cases to parents or the public if their child attends the school.  This lack of a truly transparent dashboard showing the history and trends of cases in LPS is alarming to many, and LPS has never given an explanation why they are less transparent than even UNL.   

A group of parents have been tracking cases by school on our own dashboard since August 7th.  It is available here. What we are tracking is a daily count by school.  This is possible because the form letters that come home to parents (parents in this group cover almost every single school in Lincoln) tell us how many cases there are in a child’s school a day.  As a statistician who trained in public health and policy analysis, what this data will let me do is assess policy changes over time.  For example, had LPS followed through with opening up HS to potentially 100% capacity, we would have had all the data we need to do a rigorous interrupted time series analysis using other schools as controls.  Using this data analysis means we could assess if school spread was really happening, and how much increasing the number of kids in HS buildings increased that spread (if at all).  

But wait:  on October 8th the Lincoln Journal Star reported that LPS said that there is no evidence of school spread.  As a social scientist with a public health background, I can tell you that there is a serious, systematic, methodological flaw in their reporting that errs on the side of missing school spread cases.  The contact tracing process (that is not public) is clearly, purposefully styled to rule out school spread a priori. 

When a positive case is reported to the school, LPS  and Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department tracers jump into action.  Timely, accurate contact tracing followed by quarantining close contacts is one tool we are using to stop the virus (in addition to widely accessible, accurate testing and masks). In fact, it is a foundational principle of public health when it comes to locating the source and stopping the spread of infectious disease.  Unfortunately, contact tracing is often slower than the virus and isn’t always accurate, and asymptotic cases make it especially tricky. 

But contact tracing in LPS is not happening in the same way as it is elsewhere, or in any way in accordance with CDC guidelines, and they are using the mask mandate in schools to cover for it.  Masks are one tool to stop the virus.  Masks are good.  Masks should not be used to define close contacts.  Here is what the CDC says about close contacts and masks and contact tracing in schools:

. . . while research indicates masks may help keep those who are infected from spreading the infection, there is less information regarding how much protection masks offer a contact exposed to a symptomatic or asymptomatic patient. Therefore, the determination of close contact should be made irrespective of whether the person with COVID-19 or the contact was wearing a mask.

Counter to CDC guidelines, here is how LPS is using masks to shield from the liability of documenting school spread cases. Let’s walk through an example of LPS contact tracing as I have seen it in action from a teacher in LPS who was alerted to a positive case in a student. 

When LPS has a positive case, they alert the building administrators, and the contact tracers begin.  They notify teachers in classrooms, at lunch and at recess, that there was a positive case.  They do not identify the student.  Instead, they ask the staff if over a certain period of time in specific classes anyone broke the LPS mask protocol.  And the teachers have to remember, over the last week, if at any time, students weren’t wearing masks for more than 15 minutes to their recollection. This is likely hard for classroom teachers who know their students but are busy accommodating both in-person and virtual learners.  Imagine if you are a sub or covering classes (this is happening often due to quarantine and regular teacher illness) and you do recall an event where more than one student had a mask off for more than 15 minutes. Even if you could remember, how would you identify those students if it wasn’t your classroom?  Now also imagine the kids who routinely have their noses hanging out–does that count?  Furthermore, let’s say something happened and there was a case where students were unmasked where they shouldn’t have been (in a classroom when not social distanced) as the teacher responsible for that classroom and those students, you are being relied upon to out yourself for not maintaining protocol.  Could there be repercussions? Possibly.  Asking teachers to report on themselves and their students for not following policy over a large number of classes, students, and timeframes is a social scientist’s nightmare.  Social desirability, recall bias, and a lack of specificity (they don’t tell you which student you should recall) means that this tool is systematically underreporting close contacts.  

But that isn’t the worst part.

Once each teacher who was in contact with that child reports back that everyone followed the rules to the best of their hazy recollection, the school contact tracing stops.  Dead in its tracks.  Per LPS guidelines, we have ruled out all “close contacts” (even though LPS made up their own definitions and these do not follow CDC guidelines).  The administration and school contact tracers’ job is done. A priori, they have concluded the case could not have resulted from school spread because they have made up their own definition of close contacts that if one or more parties were wearing masks, it doesn’t count.  Now the health department picks up and checks every other avenue.  Where have you been? Who have you been in contact with?  Have any of them been found to be positive with covid19?  And if they can’t trace any positive cases to that individual student, then they call it a case of community spread.  

To be clear, I have covered this before: “community spread” is a lot like a diagnosis of SIDS when a baby dies.  It just means they ruled out every other explanation and they don’t know what happened.  So when a student in LPS is designated community spread, they don’t mean school spread.  They mean they don’t know.  But they have now “traced” it and found it to be “community spread.” Are these cases truly community spread, or are they actually school spread and LPS is not doing its due diligence in investigating? 

In the LJS article, I was shocked to see that LPS reported that every single positive case in school (over 200) that contact tracers had found a “source.”  This quite frankly would be a statistical miracle, and was probably an error made by LJS because they didn’t know to ask one question:  How many of those 200 cases were identified by tracers as community spread?  

Here is an example.  Let’s look at the 10 cases in Zeman Elementary School discussed in the article on October 8th.  First of all, 10 cases represents a school positivity rate of approximately 2% (another stat they should have the transparency to report).  How many of those students were traced back to a parent/guardian or other close contact outside of school who tested positive?  Let’s guess it was half (which seems reasonable), and the Health Department traces the other cases to “community spread.”  Of those cases, would we ever know if they picked them up, not out in the community, but in school?  No.  Because the current system rules out school spread a priori before the health department ever looks.  It is logically flawed.  If you aren’t looking for school spread, you aren’t going to find it.  And if you don’t find it, the source becomes “community spread.” Using the current system, LPS is looking for school spread through a self-placed blindfold, and they all want us to take their word for it that it isn’t happening.  By masking the data, they put a blindfold on all of us, and tell us to trust them.  That isn’t how trust is built.

LPS needs to do a number of things to restore the trust and faith of parents and teachers.  1) They need to report daily positive, for the district and by school,  2) They need to report the number of students quarantining, not just teachers, 3) Most important of all: when a student positive is found to be “community spread” by contact tracers, they should go back to investigating at the school.  The LJS reported that LPS is looking at clusters, but if you look at the data, there have been a lot of apparent clusters.  How many of those are in the same grade?  How many were in the same class or lunch? There is no transparency. The people flying blind just want us to believe them. 

According to the LJS and LPS “District officials monitor for trends in schools and more closely monitor and trace the exposure source when there are at least two cases reported within 14 days.”  Here is what our most consistent data contributor has to say about that: 

Here is the slew of overlapping days: Adams, Brownell, Calvert–all 5 cases, Campbell, Elliott-all 4 cases, Hill, Kahoa–both cases, Kooser-both cases, Lakeview-all 3 cases, Maxey-all 3 cases, Meadow Lane-both cases, Norwood Park-all 3 cases, Pershing-all 3 cases, Randolph-all 3 cases are overlapping, Roper, Sheridan, West Lincoln, Zeman-all 10 cases are overlapping–this one is the most concerning, Culler-all 7 cases are overlapping, Goodrich-all 5 cases are overlapping, Lefler-all 4 cases are overlapping, Lux, Mickle-all 6 cases are overlapping, Park-all 6 cases are overlapping, Pound-all 6 cases are overlapping, Schoo-all 4 cases are overlapping, Scott, East-all 21 cases are overlapping, Lincoln High-all but the first case are overlapping, North Star-all 21 cases are overlapping, Northeast-all16 cases are overlapping, Southeast-all but the first case are overlapping, Southwest-all but the first are overlapping, Bryan-all 4 are overlapping.

So there you have it.  If you look at the spreadsheet linked above, so many instances are overlapping 14 days.  How many of those youth were in the same lunch, recess, classroom?  How many were never investigated because teachers and other staff didn’t REMEMBER any random instance of noncompliance?  And furthermore, as the CDC says, masks are not 100% effective.  Even with masks, how many were in contact with each other with masks and, because of LPS contract tracing protocol, were never investigated?  

We don’t know because LPS is withholding data that should be available to residents, taxpayers, parents and students.  LPS needs to do better with this or  those of us who love public schools and have championed LPS will be so disillusioned when all of this is over that school privatization will finally grab ahold of our state and further erode faith in public schools like it has in so many other states in the U.S.  And to be clear, LPS is not alone.  There is a dearth of systematic school data in this country. This is not just an LPS failure. How many other school districts are making up their own criteria and ignoring possible school spread?  We may never know except for tireless activists working to collect the data LPS won’t share.  This is a low point for public schools, we hope it doesn’t result in fewer kids attending public schools as Republicans would prefer.