More than 57,000 Newark students have been learning in person for several weeks, alongside thousands of teachers and school staffers. So how many COVID cases have cropped up at each school?
The public has no way of knowing. Out of more than 115 traditional and charter public schools in Newark, just three post COVID data online.
The three schools that make the data public are operated by Marion P. Thomas Charter Schools, which publishes the latest number of student and employee COVID cases at each school.
“While transparency is not always easy,” said Angela Mincy, the schools superintendent, “we are committed to doing what is right by our students, families, staff, and extended community.”
The data from Marion P. Thomas is reassuring: Just 17 people have tested positive for COVID out of nearly 1,600 students and employees, according to the dashboard on the school’s website, which officials say is updated nightly. Since the three schools began classes on Aug. 30, they have not had a single COVID outbreak, which the state defines as three or more cases traced to in-school transmission.
In New Jersey and nationwide, daily new coronavirus infections are ebbing as more Americans get vaccinated, and COVID transmission is generally low in schools that follow safety guidelines. Still, some students and teachers continue to get infected, often outside of school, forcing them and their close contacts to quarantine.
For that reason, many people have sought out their schools’ COVID numbers. Yet, in Newark, most schools don’t publish that data.
Marion P. Thomas is the only one of Newark’s 17 charter school operators that posts its COVID case count online, according to Chalkbeat’s review of their websites. Newark Public Schools, the state’s largest traditional school district, also does not publish school-level COVID data, though the superintendent shared the overall case number for the first time last month. (As of Sept. 28, 75 of the district’s 37,000 students had tested positive, he said.)
Schools are legally permitted to publish COVID case counts as long as they don’t identify individual students. Like Marion P. Thomas, many other New Jersey districts post online data trackers that show the number of confirmed cases at each school.
While the Newark school district and all but one charter school operator are not publishing their COVID data, they are tracking it. Schools must report COVID cases to the local health department; beginning Oct. 26, they also will have to report weekly case numbers and vaccination rates to the state health department.
Newark families and school employees have been calling on schools to share that data publicly.
“Some parents have expressed a lot of concerns about not always being able to readily and clearly access information about COVID outbreaks in their schools,” said Newark school board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas at last month’s board meeting.
Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León has verbally shared employee case numbers at the monthly board meetings since the pandemic started, and last month for the first time he gave the district-wide student case count. However, the district has not posted those numbers online or provided school-level data.
At September’s meeting, León said the district is “in the process of really trying to figure that out.” A district spokesperson did not respond to an email Friday asking whether the data will be posted online.
It’s also not clear if or when the city’s charter schools will follow the lead of Marion P. Thomas and publish school-level COVID data.
One of the largest charter school operators, KIPP New Jersey, which manages 14 Newark schools, does “not at this time” plan to post COVID data online, said spokesperson Jessica Shearer. However, each KIPP school sends families a letter each week with the number of people in quarantine, she added.
“The vast majority of students and staff are in classrooms and we have not had any reports of widespread outbreaks 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 health department only publishes school COVID outbreaks by county, not by district or school, and does not require districts to share their data locally.
“The lack of adequate state standards on reporting case counts has left it to districts and schools to figure it out on their own,” he said in a statement. “In that kind of vacuum, it’s no surprise that we see a variety of approaches on the ground in Newark.”
Rosenkrans said his organization has encouraged all schools to share their COVID data “liberally,” adding that he expects “the reporting will get more robust over time.”
In an email, Marion P. Thomas Superintendent Mincy said she understands why other school leaders might feel vulnerable sharing COVID data with the public. But allowing people to see exactly how many — or how few — COVID cases have been reported in schools can help reduce anxiety and reassure the public that schools are keeping students and employees safe.
“We owe it to our community,” she said, “to continue to operate with empathy, grace, and transparency.”