DeKalb County Schools’ inconsistent COVID-19 data reporting worries parents

DeKalb County School District Administration and Instructional Complex on Mtn. Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain. Photo by Dean Hesse

DeKalb County, GA — Gaps in data and lack of clear reporting on COVID-19 from DeKalb County School District (DCSD) is causing confusion among parents and risk to the health of students too young to be vaccinated.

There is a dangerous lag time between exposure and notification, parents report. Notification of exposure to COVID-19 from DCSD is days late, and students are going to school unaware they’ve been in close contact with COVID-19, particularly when cases emerge over the weekends.

DCSD said, “Cases are typically processed when they are received. Weekend cases follow the same protocol and schools work though their regional superintendents to process the information. Notifications letters are approved for dissemination to parents.”

A parent at an elementary school in Doraville, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation by school officials, said her child woke up on a Saturday morning with COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive later that day. By Sunday at 6:30 a.m., the parent emailed the principal with results. The principal promptly responded that she would report it to the district.

Unknowingly, the class went to school on Monday. At 11 a.m., at least two parents were notified of close contact and were told to come pick up their students. Now, at least six students from the class have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the parent estimates.

The disconnect occurred between the district and parents – the principal is not at fault, said the parent.

“I think the district needs a much faster turnaround time when parents are reporting cases. The district had more than 24 hours’ notice. I get that it’s a weekend, but that’s unacceptable,” said the parent.

DCSD has 140 schools and 100,000 students. It is the largest employer in the county with 16,000 employees. The district is split into seven regions, each headed by a regional superintendent.

Since the start of school on Aug. 2, more than 870 cases have been self-reported. Teachers and parents say they’re unaware of how many COVID-19 cases are in their schools because of incomplete reporting by the district.

A DeKalb County teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she is afraid of being fired, said, “I can confirm and verify that we do not know when students test positive, or how many cases are in the building, or who is quarantining. Record numbers of students are absent on record numbers of days, and I received an email from the principal that they are temporarily virtual. It’s all so deceptive.”

Surveillance testing and screening methods are not currently being used in the district, though school officials are discussing implementing these measures at schools.

The district said, “The safety and well-being of our students and staff remains a top priority. DeKalb County School District (DCSD) is committed to providing safe learning environments for students and staff. The district continues to monitor trends in reported cases. The district will continue to work with community partners, such as the DeKalb County Board of Health, on contact tracing, and to address surveillance testing based on the most current research, medical consultation and rise in cases.”

No date was specified when surveillance testing may begin, if at all.

The district posts a weekly, cumulative list of students and teachers with positive COVID-19 cases, broken down by school and region.

– July 1-30: self-reported cases totaled 157 (46 staff and 10 students)

– July 31 to Aug 6: self-reported cases totaled 157 (49 staff and 108 students)

– Aug. 7-13: self-reported cases totaled 289 (44 staff and 245 students)

– Aug. 14-20: self-reported cases totaled 428 (57 staff and 371 students)

In at least one case, the DeKalb County COVID-19 report lists zero cases for a school that had publicly reported cases.

Decaturish previously learned that The Museum School already had reported cases. But on the district’s official report, those cases are not listed.

A screenshot of the most recent DeKalb County Schools COVID-19 report.

Other schools with zero cases reported are Cary Reynolds Elementary School, Dresden Elementary School, Huntley Hills Elementary School, Margaret Harris Comprehensive School, Warren Technical School, Coralwood Diagnostic, Globe Academy, Laurel Ridge Elementary School, Leadership Prep, Princeton Elementary School, DeKalb Early College Academy, Eagle Woods Academy, Shadow Rock Center, DeKalb High School Tech South, International Student Center, Robert Shaw Traditional Theme School and Viewpoint Health ELA.

When asked about the 18 schools without cases, DCSD said, “The district only reports the number of positive cases that has been submitted to the district. Positive cases are either reported by parents or employees. It is possible to have positive cases that have not been reported.”

Nearby school districts publish more detailed data. APS reports by school the number of student cases, staff cases, school-based exposures including at extracurricular activities on a weekly basis.

Gwinnett County Public Schools reports by school the number of close contacts, confirmed cases, probable cases on a daily basis.

Why is DeKalb’s data limited to a cumulative report? The school district didn’t provide a clear answer.

“Currently, DeKalb’s report is based on the number of positive cases reported,” said DCSD.

Communication from the district comes in dribs and drabs, parent David Felfoldi said, including emails from DeKalb County leadership, District Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris, regional superintendents, Town Hall meetings and principals.

“There are multiple people sending communication, but they don’t align,” said Felfoldi.

“I greatly appreciate that the district continues to modify their policies as guidance changes from the CDC and even AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics]. I hope they continue to evolve. My concerns, however, are with the cherry-picking of mitigation tactics, lack of preparedness, lack of transparency on decision rubrics and inconsistent communications from the district,” said Felfoldi.

The lack of information is drawing parents to communicate outside of school, by text and social media.

“Without us talking to each other, no one would know what was actually going on. We were tired of getting different information, so we all started piecing it together ourselves,” a parent said. “It’s just messy.”

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