One of the most powerful tools in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has been data. Data analytics has informed what we can do, when we can do it, and has kept us safe. As more schools reopen their doors, data is also playing a vital role in ensuring they do so safely.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued key indicators for dynamic school decision making, which include measures of underlying community transmission as well as a measure of adherence to key mitigation strategies. While these indicators provide a solid foundation for establishing and maintaining in-person plans, they aren’t always inclusive of the data that parents, teachers, and staff need to feel comfortable about returning to the classroom.
To gain buy-in from these stakeholders and help inform plans as schools reopen, schools districts must also consider four under-the-radar-data points. Let’s take a look.
- Access to high-speed internet
The pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders exposed a glaring inequity in access to high-speed internet in the home. An April 2020 survey, spearheaded by the U.S. Census Bureau, found that 3.7 million households with children had internet available “sometimes, rarely, or never.” This disparity is felt most acutely in rural America where only 65 percent of Americans have access to fixed internet.
The consequence for a child’s education is significant. In the past year, students have struggled with failing grades while unprecedented numbers simply disappeared from classes, forcing districts to rethink their approach to getting them to show up.
As schools mull reopening plans, a student’s access to this basic service should be a key consideration. Publicly available data sources such as Broadband USA, the National Broadband Map, and Education Superhighway can help school districts and government leaders learn about connectivity in their state and prioritize in-school learning for those students who can’t participate in virtual education.
2. Availability of vaccine
Until an approved vaccine is available for children under 16, faculty, staff, and teachers are rightly concerned about potential disease transmission in schools and the risk of bringing infection back home to their families as schools reopen.
To minimize health risk and alleviate these concerns, it’s important that school districts gather data on the availability of the COVID vaccine and the percentage of teachers and school staff who opted to receive it. Typically available from state departments of health, this data can be used to prioritize physical reopening decisions.
But it can also be combined with other information to develop a more customized approach based on circumstances and need. For example, staff and teachers who lack broadband internet at home but have been vaccinated may be prioritized for a return to school. Alternatively, if a school is in an area with low vaccination rates but a high percentage of homes with high-speed internet access, then leaders may err on the side of caution and manage learning virtually until vaccination rates increase.
Schools could also give vaccinated teachers the option to return for in-person schooling for those vulnerable student populations who can’t participate in or are struggling with remote learning. Fortunately, the recent increase in vaccine availability should limit this problem for faculty and staff by the start of the next school year.
3. Food insecurity
Many students rely on school breakfasts and lunches for their core meals of the day. Some localities have pivoted and offer meals at schools (transportation permitting) or provide meal subsidies to families. While these measures address immediate need, states must also plan for the future.
Millions of jobs were eliminated or put on hold during the pandemic, and many may never come back. It’s also unlikely that schools will be fully operational for some time, placing a continued strain on family pocketbooks.
While ensuring children have access to affordable, nutritious food is not the responsibility of schools, as they plan for the prolonged impacts of the crisis, it’s an important conversation for school boards and social service agencies to have.
This is the case in Virginia. Through data sharing and data analytics, the commonwealth is helping families continue to put food on the table – even those who were previously ineligible. Since many of these recipients weren’t in the social services’ system, the state pioneered an inter-agency data initiative to identify eligible families and quickly issue 440,000 new food benefit cards to those in need.
4. Affordability of care
In the face of COVID-19, the cost of childcare has skyrocketed. Increased demand and the need to meet stringent safety guidelines saw licensed childcare center rates soar by 47 percent while home-based family childcare costs have increased by an average of 70 percent.
Under pressure from parents to reopen, school boards should leverage childcare data to inform their decision-making and prioritize returning impacted students, teachers, and staff. Data points to consider include the availability and cost of childcare in the area, and whether a student has working or non-working parents or guardians.
Government leaders can also leverage data to help families find care. For instance, some states are using data from childcare licensing records and surveys to analyze which childcare facilities are open, at what capacity, and mapping that data so parents can quickly understand their options.
Tracking the metrics that matter most may require policy changes
Guidelines from the federal government and anecdotes from how other schools are managing to reopen are only helpful to a point. In the face of a crisis, school leaders must find ways to track the metrics that matter the most to their communities. In most cases this means uniting previously siloed data from across a variety of government sources to unlock insights and reach consensus about back-to-school plans. In many states this may require changes to data sharing policies that are often codified to keep that data under the control of the “data owner.”
If data is to keep answering the questions that arise during these fluid and dynamic times, it’s important for schools and government leaders to factor these under-recognized considerations into their discussions so as to help build broader consensus among parents, teachers, staff, and families.
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