Using Data to Ensure a Safe Return to School During COVID-19

December 10, 2020

Article Summary

With limited information about the novel coronavirus, industries are scrambling to create an effective response to more quickly and safely return to life before the pandemic. Data has proven to be the best way to capture information about the developing virus. With access to the latest, comprehensive COVID-19 data, decision makers in any industry—from education to healthcare—can develop a sustainable, viable approach to pandemic-era operations.

In the education sector, leaders can use accurate, up-to-date COVID-19 data to make decisions about implementing in-person or virtual learning. When states across the country instituted virtual learning as a stopgap until it was safe to resume in-person education, the most vulnerable students experienced the greatest disadvantages. As these disparities grow with continued virtual learning, it is an imperative that leaders have access to the latest coronavirus data to rapidly return to face-to-face learning.

COVID-19 has led to significant changes across every industry, from healthcare to education. The impacts include an estimated $17 billion in lost revenue for hospitals due to halted elective procedures and school closures for more than 85 percent of students worldwide. While there’s little information about how some changes (e.g., school closures) impact the disease spread, the social and economic costs are substantial and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations.

Only limited data on the best approach for a safe return to pre-pandemic activity, such as reopening schools, has informed practices nationwide, leaving hospitals and school districts unsure about what to do next. In the education sector, some state governments have mandated in-person learning only to have local school districts pivot to virtual learning to accommodate social distancing due to limited physical space. Other schools have attempted to open. For example, several schools in Georgia opened without COVID-19 safety protocols, then closed a few days later with nearly 1,200 students and staff members ordered to quarantine following exposure to the virus. Meanwhile, on the healthcare side, hospitals are struggling to meet CMS’s guidelines and their own state’s recommendations to restart elective procedures.

While institutions struggle to react to pandemic-induced changes, such as virtual learning, leaders can still make informed decisions that benefit the masses with access to comprehensive, up-to-date COVID-19 data. Even with unclear guidelines, accurate data and analytics can enable local governments, schoolboard decision makers, and healthcare policymakers to better understand COVID-19 rates and trends in their communities. With expansive, data-driven insight specific to their populations, leaders can make safe, sustainable decisions, such as when and how to reopen primary and secondary schools.

COVID-19 Data Drives Decisions About In-Person Versus Virtual Learning

Just as health systems increasingly rely on data to maximize resources, reach peak operational efficiency, and provide the best care to patients, COVID-19 has underscored the imperative for educational organizations to also make data-informed decisions. For example, in Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OPSI) partnered with the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to develop data-informed reopening guidelines. The guidelines address public health science based on the latest COVID-19 data in the community, including the average number of cases each day and onset date, available at the time of publication, to guide consideration for reopening schools. Local school boards decide if they will reopen primary and secondary schools based on OPSI’s approval of the school districts’ reopening plans.

Aiming for a better experience for the 2020-21 school year, one rural Washington community established a school reopening committee to develop school year plans based on COVID-19 data. The reopening committee created a subcommittee tasked with monitoring the risk of COVID-19 transmission for children in the school system and regularly reporting this information to the larger committee. The subcommittee analyzed comprehensive data from different sources, such as The American Academy of Pediatrics, weekly epidemiology reports from Cowlitz County Health & Human Services (CCHHS), and the DOH in order to assess this risk. The subcommittee reviews COVID-19 data on a regular basis to understand the level of transmission within the local community and to inform reopening plans. For example, based on the latest data, children under 18 account for less than 11 percent of all COVID-19 cases and some data suggests that children under the age of 18 are less susceptible to COVID-19, but the frequency of transmission of COVID-19 from children to adults is still unclear. Monitoring COVID-19 data as it changes allows for a safe, informed approach to reopening in-person learning.

The struggle to stay on top of the latest coronavirus trends is all too common. In addition to schools, health systems, companies, and universities all grapple with knowing when to safely return to pre-coronavirus practices. But, even with the ever-changing virus, planning school reopenings is possible if decision makers have access to the latest complete COVID-19 data. The weekly data reports about Cowlitz County COVID-19 rates combined with information from the DOH, benchmarked against national data to understand how the school district’s COVID-19 cases compared, allowed the subcommittee to rely on broad, unbiased data (rather than anecdotal information) to effectively guide school reopening conversations and planning.

Like many other counties, CCHHS tracks and reports the Cowlitz County’s COVID-19 testing and results activity. A weekly epidemiology report provides residents and school districts data they can use to understand COVID-19 activity in the community. Community members can also access updated reports every Monday and use the DOH resources (e.g., Decision Tree for Provision of In-Person Learning) to make data-informed school reopening decisions (Figure 1).

Cowlitz County Epidemiology Report
Figure 1: The Cowlitz County epidemiology report.

Relying on varied, timely COVID-19 reports, decision makers learned that by August of 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases in Cowlitz County aligned with the state’s definition of moderate COVID-19 activity. The DOH suggests exercising caution for COVID-19 positive rates over 5 percent, and Cowlitz County’s rate was 5 percent. With no COVID-19-related hospitalizations and meeting the DOH Decision Tree’s criteria to reopen schools, Cowlitz County could safely expand in-person education combined with virtual learning, starting with elementary students.

Safely Restarting In-Person Learning Is Possible with COVID-19 Data

To return to in-person education, the district had to develop plans to ensure staff and student safety while also meeting the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries COVID-19 requirements to protect workers. Safety measures included keeping the students in designated cohorts, daily symptom screening, providing personal protective equipment, sufficient ventilation, and large spaces to accommodate social distancing.

To augment safety measures, schools used contact tracing tools to track student movement. Understanding how many students each building could safely accommodate and identifying any COVID-19 exposure early decreased the likelihood of the virus spreading and increased the chance of continuing in-person learning. The data also revealed that the school district had limited capacity and could not safely accommodate in-person learning for all students to attend five days a week while maintaining physical distancing requirements. With evidence-based, data-informed safety precautions in place and a moderate COVID-19 activity level, the school board voted to resume in-person education for kindergarten through sixth grade. Leaders implemented a hybrid schedule (until the physical distancing requirements change) so that students can learn online while still experiencing some in-person learning and social interaction. Seventh through twelfth grade began the school year with online education only. Although in-person learning resumed, community leaders and teachers understood that it could change overnight based on new COVID-19 data. Therefore, it was critical to have access to the latest data sets from a variety of sources in easy-to-read data displays, helping people less versed in advanced data analytics understand the data and make quick decisions.

At some schools in the district, hundreds of students have been attending in-person education for more than twelve weeks without any COVID-19 transmission at the school, only possible because of access to reliable data that demonstrates the in-person learning is safely meeting local guidelines.

COVID-19 Data Allows for Effective, Safe Learning Environment

Reintroducing pre-pandemic practices in any setting—from reopening schools to restarting elective procedures in a hospital—leaves room for error and a failure to implement appropriate safety standards. Because experts are still learning about the coronavirus, the only way to keep up with COVID-19 is with data. Current, comprehensive data allows decision makers to stay in the know about the latest changes in their local community, and in turn, ensure response measures (e.g., in-person learning or restarting elective surgeries) align with the latest information.

To optimize data, decision makers need proper tools, such as data displays that highlight trends, patterns, or outliers. Additionally, relying on data-informed tools to understand capacity (whether in a school or hospital) and trace potential COVID-19 exposure allows organizations to get ahead of the virus. With the combination of consistent data sets from diverse sources, tools to maximize data, and leaders who are willing to adapt their approach, community members can practice safe decision making and more quickly return to a life similar before the pandemic.

Additional Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic? Here are some articles we suggest:

  1. <Shifting to Virtual Care in the COVID-19 Era: Analytics for Financial Success and an Optimized Patient Experience
  2. Four Strategies Drive High-Value Healthcare Analytics for COVID-19 Recovery
  3. How a U.S. COVID-19 Data Registry Fuels Global Research
  4. Six Strategies to Navigate COVID-19 Financial Recovery for Health Systems
  5. Six Proven Methods to Combat COVID-19 with Real-World Analytics

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