The District’s COVID-19 Dashboard has reported 37 COVID-19 cases among M-A students all year. For three weeks, there were no new cases at all—an impressive feat for a school of 2,400 students.
However, some worry that the Dashboard is underreporting cases, and that the District’s COVID-19 procedures are insufficient to catch every possible infection.
Do we have good reason to think the COVID-19 Dashboard is inaccurate? Despite the holes in the system, it seems to reflect the COVID-19 case rate of San Mateo County.
The COVID-19 Dashboard for San Mateo County reports 174 cases among people aged 10-19 in the last 30 days. Census data finds there are about 84,300 people in that age group across the county, meaning about 0.21% of people aged 10-19 get COVID-19 in a 30-day period in San Mateo County at this point in the pandemic. 0.21% of the 2,400 students at M-A is about five students, which means we should expect about five students to get COVID-19 every 30 days at M-A.
With the case rates so far at an average of about two per week among M-A students, our Dashboard data reflects county-wide data for the age group. If anything, more cases are reported compared to the rest of the county, although that is largely caused by an influx of cases from the past few weeks. In contrast, in October, cases were well below what we should have expected. Still, the overall trend suggests that there isn’t much of a reason to believe the Dashboard is inaccurate or that many cases are going undetected.
However, the system for identifying and tracking cases is definitely flawed. The school only finds out that students have COVID-19 when the student’s family reports it to the attendance office, or when a student tells a teacher about it while they are absent. Those cases are then reported on SUHSD’s COVID-19 Dashboard, which is updated at the end of every week. The school then sends General Exposure Notices to every teacher on campus and all the families of that student’s classmates. An additional notice is sent to individuals identified as close contacts, or people who were within six feet of the infected student for at least 15 minutes, determined by class seating charts and extracurricular participation.
The sick student can come back to school 10 days after a positive COVID-19 test or the day their symptoms started, whichever comes first. They do not need a negative test to return to campus.
While the cases reported on the Dashboard are investigated and tracked, it is possible for the District to miss other cases altogether. As explained by Javier Gutierrez, SUHSD’s Health & Wellness Coordinator, “We have no way to include cases that are never reported to the district or that we do not find out about to investigate and confirm.”
One obvious way for cases to go undetected is when students are sick with COVID-like symptoms, but either never get tested or never report illness to the school. Kristin Coronado, the District Nurse, said that when families call to let the school know their student is sick, it goes on a spreadsheet tracking COVID-19 symptoms. The Health Office then tries to call back each of those families, asking for more information and recommending that the student get COVID-19 tested.
However, Coronado added, “It’s really hard to follow up with every single phone call.” She explained, “We really try hard to follow up with every single kid who calls out sick, but if they’re really vague about their symptoms or they don’t really give a reason, they might not get a phone call from us telling them to get a COVID test. There probably are kids walking around with symptoms, and possibly positive, but they’ve sort of just fallen through the cracks.”
Administrative Vice Principal Stephen Emmi said that if a family “is actually on the phone talking to the nurse, then they’ll ask [about COVID-19 symptoms and testing].” However, when it’s just a message left to the school, “we’re not necessarily calling back every single person.” He said, “I think it’s a good unspoken understanding, especially from health communications of the District, that if you’re sick and you have cold symptoms, you should get a COVID test.”
While an imperfect system, the school doesn’t have the ability to follow up with every family. Coronado explained, “It takes a lot of collaboration between the Attendance Office and the Health Office to get each name on our tracker, and it’s a work in progress. We don’t have the staff to follow up with each and every call. It’s impossible and not happening for every caller.” Instead, the school prioritizes following up with families that mention in their message factors that make it likely a sick student has COVID-19, like other members of the household testing positive.
Overall, the District is happy with the COVID-19 numbers. “Our District’s student case count can be seen as a successful reopening as we have [only a small portion] of the student population reporting confirmed cases since school began,” Gutierrez said. He added, “Our Health & Safety measures and protocols are keeping our schools safe for in-person learning.”
Coronado explained, “While we can’t say for sure that a transmission didn’t happen on campus, when we do our investigating and contact tracing, we’ve found that the majority of transmissions are happening outside of school,” such as in families and at non-school social events.
Emmi added, “There haven’t been clusters among close contacts” identified by the school, adding to the District’s confidence that transmissions are not happening on campus.
We can’t be certain that every COVID-19 case is identified and tracked by the District, but the case numbers overall are consistent with county trends—it appears, then, that the Dashboard is fairly accurate.