October 16, 2021
More than 57,000 Newark students have been studying in person with thousands of teachers and school staff for several weeks. So how many COVID cases have emerged at each school?
There is no way for the public to know. Out of 115+ traditional and public schools in Newark, only three publish COVID data online.
The three schools that publish the data are operated by Marion P. Thomas Charter Schools, which publishes the latest number of COVID cases from students and staff at each school.
“While transparency is not always easy,” said Angela Mincy, the headmistress, “we have an obligation to do what is right for our students, families, employees and the wider community.”
Marion P. Thomas’ data is reassuring: Only 17 people out of nearly 1,600 students and employees tested positive for COVID, according to the dashboard on the school’s website, which is updated every night according to official information. Since the three schools started class on Aug. 30, there has not been a single COVID outbreak that the state defines as three or more cases that are due to transmission at school.
In New Jersey and across the country, new coronavirus infections are falling every day as more Americans are vaccinated and COVID transmission is generally low in schools that follow safety guidelines. Nonetheless, some students and teachers continue to get infected, often outside of school, forcing them and their close contacts into quarantine.
Because of this, many people have searched for their schools’ COVID numbers. In Newark, however, most schools do not publish this data.
Marion P. Thomas is the only one of 17 Newark charter school operators to publish their COVID case numbers online, according to Chalkbeat’s review of their websites. Newark Public Schools, the state’s largest traditional school district, is also not releasing school-level COVID data, despite the principal sharing the total number of cases for the first time last month. (By September 28, 75 of the district’s 37,000 students had tested positive, he said.)
Schools are legally entitled to publish COVID case numbers as long as they do not identify individual students. Like Marion P. Thomas, many other New Jersey counties publish online data trackers that show the number of confirmed cases at each school.
Although Newark School District and all but one charter school operator don’t publish their COVID data, they are tracking it. Schools must report COVID cases to the local health department; From October 26th, they also have to report weekly case numbers and vaccination rates to the state health department.
Newark families and school staff have urged schools to share this data publicly.
“Some parents have raised major concerns that they may not always have easy and clear access to information about COVID outbreaks in their schools,” said A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, member of the Newark School Board, at the board meeting last month.
Newark Public Schools’ superintendent Roger León has verbally shared staff case numbers at monthly board meetings since the pandemic began, and last month he announced the district-wide number of student cases for the first time. However, the district did not publish these numbers online or provide school-level data.
At the September meeting, León said the district was “in the process of really finding this out”. A district spokesman did not respond to an email on Friday asking if the data would be put online.
It is also not clear if or when the city’s charter schools will follow Marion P. Thomas’ lead and publish COVID data at the school level.
One of the largest charter school operators, KIPP New Jersey, which manages 14 Newark schools, “currently has no plans” to put COVID data online, spokeswoman Jessica Shearer said. However, each KIPP school sends families a letter every week with the number of people in quarantine, she added.
“The vast majority of students and staff are in classrooms and we have not received any reports of widespread breakouts or building closures,” she said in an email.
Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, which supports Newark Charter Schools, argued that the state bears much of the blame. The New Jersey Department of Health only publishes school COVID outbreaks by county, not by county or school, and does not require counties to share their data locally.
“The lack of adequate government standards for reporting case numbers has left counties and schools to find out for themselves,” he said in a statement. “In this vacuum, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing a variety of approaches in the field in Newark.”
Rosenkrans said his organization had encouraged all schools to “freely” share their COVID data, adding that he expected “reporting will become more robust over time”.
In an email, Marion P. Thomas told Superintendent Mincy she understands why other school principals may feel vulnerable when sharing COVID data with the public. But if people can see exactly how many – or how few – COVID cases have been reported in schools, it can help reduce fears and reassure the public that schools are keeping students and staff safe.
“We owe it to our community to continue to work with empathy, grace and transparency,” she said.
This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit public education news organization. Sign up for their newsletter here.