Grand Forks school leaders released data on Friday showing coronavirus cases among staff and students in the district. The move is a shift from what leaders would share at the beginning of the school year, when they withheld almost all case data for privacy reasons.
The new numbers are expected to help public observers and parents better understand how safe the classroom is and better judge how well school leaders are managing students’ return. But it is unclear how well it will satisfy parents who have clamored for a closer look at the district’s inner workings.
The new numbers are very broad, combining staff and student figures, keeping individual COVID cases unidentifiable. According to the district, there are nearly 7,000 students and staff who are in district buildings right now — the rest working and learning remotely. Of those staff and students, 1.4% have tested positive for COVID between Oct. 19 and Oct. 30 (that’s about 97 people). And over the same time period, there have been 883 such staff and students who were considered close contacts of a positive case.
Superintendent Terry Brenner said that new data is being released as the school begins to outgrow plans laid earlier this year, which called for sending in-person learners home when new cases grew significantly. School leaders declined to do so in an Oct. 20 memo to parents, citing low rates of infection in the classroom, despite higher rates in the county overall.
“We just learned so much in the last two and a half months about what this looks like and how we can make decisions. It probably appeared that we were flying in the face of our own plan,” Brenner said. “I understand if people have questions about that, so we're trying to provide more clarity, and provide some information that allows us to be clinical and surgical in our approaches to decision-making.”
In recent weeks, North Dakota and Grand Forks Public Schools’ coronavirus cases have grown explosively. On Friday morning, Grand Forks had more than 4,000 total reported cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database, with nearly 6% of the county testing positive.
Grand Forks city leaders responded Monday — following other North Dakota cities’ lead — by approving a mask resolution that demands local residents wear them. Though that resolution carries no penalty for violators, it revealed government officials’ growing alarm at the past month’s extraordinary increase in local infections.
But even as those cases have grown, Grand Forks Public Schools leaders have insisted their own numbers — in school buildings carefully managed for students — have remained very low.
As a result, public interest in the school system’s data has grown during the last month. But without more detailed data to help explain those decisions, some parents have felt left in the dark. One parent of a fourth-grader wrote to district leaders, worried about news from the school of a positive test in the classroom, and a reassurance from the district that it was safe to return.
His letter was read aloud at a School Board meeting on Oct. 26, by member Eric Lunn. It wondered why the district couldn’t release aggregate, top-level data he needed.
“That letter (from school leaders) did not provide me the information I needed to decide what's best for my child and my family,” Lunn read aloud.
Brenner acknowledged those concerns on Friday morning.
At least in recent weeks, things have been more transparent in Fargo, where school leaders post regular updates online that details the number of students and staff — both infected and considered a close contact — broken down by building level. On Wednesday, the district’s website showed 125 students at the elementary level considered close contacts, for example, compared to just 12 at the middle school level — a difference that helps sketch out how the virus could be spreading within the district.
Likewise in Bismarck, a coronavirus dashboard shows data on the number of elementary and secondary students and staff, separately, who have tested positive or who have been a close contact of an infected person. In West Fargo, a Wednesday bulletin showed 309 students and staff in quarantine and 34 students and staff with a positive COVID result.
Attempts to obtain data from the district in early October were declined by district officials, who cited privacy concerns. Those requests were for detailed data, building-by-building, on positive cases. School leaders declined to release the data, citing an in-house legal opinion on medical privacy.
Jack McDonald, an attorney with the North Dakota Newspaper Association, criticized that decision. He spoke with the Herald prior to this week’s news of the school district’s intent to release more COVID data.
“They could try to be finding ways to get (the data) out to the public rather than finding ways to not get it out to the public,” McDonald said. "Not all the parents have kids who get the virus or are close-contacted. But if I had kids in school I'd sure want to know what the COVID situation is in that school — whether my kids are infected or not."
Since then, the district has obtained a new legal opinion, district leaders said on Friday, which allows the release of broad, aggregate numbers on district COVID cases.
The new opinion, and the new level of transparency, comes after a significant rise in local cases and frustration from parents. Did the district make a mistake in not releasing more data sooner?
“No,” Tracy Jentz, the district spokesperson, said on Friday, arguing that the district was carefully responding to a common question while working with lawyers to protect privacy.
Linsey Rood, a human resources professional with the district, added that school leaders have a duty to their staff and students.
“I think it's important to remember why there was such a thoughtfulness and a carefulness with this information from the beginning — because at the foundation of it, it's medical information about individuals,” she said