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MAP: Tracking COVID-19 School Outbreaks In Iowa

Madeleine King

Data Scientist Sara Willette is now working with the Iowa State Education Association to track COVID-19 outbreaks at Iowa schools.

A website that has been analyzing Iowa coronavirus data from the start of the pandemic is now piecing together reports from Iowa schools.

On the site Iowa COVID-19 Tracker Sara Willette has posted numbers showing more than 100 students have tested positive and hundreds more have been in quarantine.

Those numbers are not being collected by the state, but Willette, who is working with the Iowa State Education Association to gather and verify the data, said the early reports show schools are vulnerable.

“There will definitely be situations in which someone brings it to the school, transmits it to someone else and then that person will take it home to their families or to their after school program,” she said.

As of Thursday afternoon, positive cases or close contacts with COVID-19 had been reported at more than 120 private and public school districts statewide. A total of 107 students and 74 teachers were identified as confirmed infections with more than 1,000 additional students and staff in quarantine.

Willette said the largest numbers of cases are coming from large, urban districts, but she has noticed some rural schools in counties with low case numbers are reporting illnesses, too, which could be a sign of undetected community spread.

She also said there is a lack of consistency in the way school districts are sharing information. Some, such as Pella and Waukee, are posting numbers online and updating them regularly. Others are not sharing the information publicly at all.

“In those situations, I'm relying on individual educators, parents, and community members who work with the schools to themselves come forward in an anonymous manner so that I can share that data with communities so that we don't have whole sections of Iowa with no information regarding what the pandemic is doing in their towns,” Willette said.

Scott Schalk, an elementary school counselor in the Bettendorf Community School District, said he has been concerned with the lack of information available about COVID-19 in schools. Since classes started he has been glad to see students following instructions on wearing masks, washing hands and keeping their distance, but he wonders how well those precautions will hold up.

“I'm interested in watching over the next couple weeks to see if all the mitigation we're doing is going to be enough to sustain and keep cases out or if we're going to start seeing those cases,” Schalk said. “As good as it kind of looks on the surface, is that enough to make a difference and to keep outbreaks from happening?”

Without information about which schools have positive cases of the coronavirus, he said it’s hard to know whether classrooms need to do more to protect against infections.

“I think it's a fine balance that the schools have to do between transparency and protecting people's privacy, but I worry that without the transparency then the information comes through rumor mills, and then with kids that turns into false information and accusations and potential bullying.”

The Iowa Department of Education is now posting updates on which districts have asked permission to move to all-virtual learning and whether those requests are granted or denied. But Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has said it is up to each school district to inform families of students and teachers who become ill.

Willette said if that information isn't public, the picture of how COVID-19 is spreading across the state is incomplete.

“It's really important to remember that our schools are also a big part of our communities and the pandemic isn't going to stop at the school door.”

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa
Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer