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Without state-wide portal, COVID-19 transparency falls on Kentucky school districts

Posted at 7:02 PM, Aug 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 19:12:54-04

LEXINGTON, KY. (LEX 18) — Last year there was a statewide portal through which schools could self-report COVID-19 cases and quarantines in students and teachers.

The information was public and allowed parents and community members to monitor the number of positive COVID-19 cases by school.

Now each Kentucky school district is required to report their cases to their local health department, and some are operating their own public dashboards to inform parents.

“The vast majority have a page up on their website or others,” Gov. Andy Beshear said during his press conference on Tuesday. “Every school system needs to be very transparent with parents and in their communication.”

Beshear said that school systems have been responsible about reporting cases and addressing outbreaks. Still, Beshear’s office is considering whether or not to bring back the statewide dashboard.

“So we learn where some of the holes are as we go,” Beshear said. “But we’re still considering whether or not that will be needed. I want to make sure that the importance of the reporting and the transparency outweighs the extra burden that might be there.”

With that burden now shifted to school districts, there have been some complications.

Fayette County Public Schools took down their own portal this week after the staff maintaining it were overwhelmed by the number of cases in the county.

“The COVID-19 Dashboard was designed to include data collected by both the FCPS COVID-19 call center and the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department so that our community has a complete picture of the landscape surrounding the virus,” district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said in a statement. “Due to the exponentially increasing number of cases and quarantines in Fayette County over the past week, our existing staff was unable to log the individual school quarantines into the database in a timely manner. Rather than provide incomplete information, we took down the dashboard so that we could correct the issue.”

The district has instructed schools to keep meticulous records of where students sit, where they stand in line and who they're near during the day to help contact tracers learn who should quarantine in the event of a COVID-19 case, Deffendall said in an interview Thursday. The amount of names and data generated through the process overwhelmed the staff working on the dashboard.

The district is restructuring its staff to keep up with the data and plans to relaunch the dashboard on Monday, Deffendall said.

“Throughout the pandemic, Fayette County Public Schools has maintained a commitment to be open and honest with students, staff, families, and community-at-large about the impact of COVID-19 on our schools,” Deffendall said. “The district has developed robust contact tracing, isolation and quarantine protocols to mitigate the potential spread of the virus, and works closely with the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department to ensure we have accurate information about cases and quarantines among students and employees.”

Other school districts were still working to get their dashboard launched when the school year started.

In Harrison County, a dashboard is being set up that will break down cases and quarantines by school, and also give district-wide totals, superintendent Dr. Harry Burchett said this week.

“Obviously parents, grandparents, the community is certainly concerned with the uptick in the number of cases and hospitalizations,” Burchett said. “The Delta variant certainly is taking the state on a different track than what we’ve been used to, and so we want to make sure that our public, our community knows what is going on within the schools.”

The dashboard will also help the district internally track trends and stay open to in-person schooling for as long as possible, Burchett said.

“This summer we had about a third of our students participate in summer learning opportunities, and it indicated that they were craving — starving for — that in-person, face-to-face engaged activity and that’s what we’re trying to achieve here,” Burchett said.

Burchett also said he is encouraging everyone to consider, though it is not mandated, having a conversation with their family doctor about getting vaccinated. The vaccinations are the best mitigation measure the community can take, Burchett said.

No matter how the school year goes, the COVID-19 dashboard will help keep parents informed.

“I worry about the point in time when, if this thing continues on the trajectory that it’s on, that we’ve got so many people quarantined, or staff quarantined, that we’re unable to have school,” Burchett said. “And I want the community to know why we’re unable to have in person learning.”