Lunches have been packed, sleep routines reset, and spelling words called out since students returned to classrooms across Georgia. Now parents, teachers, and students are reviewing progress reports and sizing up what happens during the next half of the grading period.
This point in the school year also gives school leaders an opportunity to review what is working and what might need to be adjusted. During a pandemic, the ability for schools to pivot on a pinhead may be the difference between lives saved and lost.
On the afternoon of Thursday, September 9, 2021, Washington County Public Schools sent out a survey using a Google platform tool asking for feedback from the school community. The survey tool is one I have used as both an executive director and board president of nonprofits.
The school system’s email with the link to the survey was sent to me by parents in the community. The form didn’t ask for any identifying information: no name, email, address, phone number. It did ask if the person responding is a school employee. It could be filled out by anyone anywhere who had the link. I filled it out and submitted it. Twice.
Friday morning when I returned to the link it said I had already submitted my answer. Fair enough. After poking around with it some during the second of many cups of coffee, I got this:
The survey showed my email address, but Google’s software told me it wasn’t collecting anything from my account.
This isn’t the first time the schools have sent out a survey without parameters set on who could fill out the survey, or requiring any identifying information, in order to submit the survey. Last school year I picked up the phone and ended up talking with Dr. Rickey Edmond, who assured me that they were able to collect identifying data even though none was require to submit answers. I told him having seen the backside of these surveys via my Google business account, I’d sure like to know how they were managing that, because it might help me in the future. All I got was, “We can.”
With the broad questions asked in last week’s survey, what can Dr. Edmond the Board of Education, and school principals really take away beyond how smooth car pick up and drop off are, and general satisfaction with instruction? Is a blind survey the only way for school leaders to know how parents and employees gauge the school year to date? How confident can school leaders, parents, teachers, and students be that the survey sent out on Thursday has the controls and parameters to collect accurate information?
It will be interesting to see what Dr. Edmond and the Board of Education members share with the community. Based on recent inquiries by myself and others concerned about the system’s Covid-19 record-keeping and reporting, my confidence in the quality of information collected and shared by the school system is low. Will the results of a survey available to anyone with email be used to guide judgement impacting not only the education of every student, but the health of the entire Washington County community?
With the return to classrooms across Georgia, I have been following the Covid-19 numbers in public schools in our state. Dismissing the recommended guidelines of the CDC, and the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, many superintendents and school boards are playing doctor with the health of their own communities. The outcome, with Georgia’s schools back in session for about a month, has resulted in schools opting to be online only, delaying the start of school, pausing all instruction after beginning the school year, and students, teachers, bus drivers, and bus monitors, dying of Covid-19.
Concerned families, school communities, medical providers, and epidemiologists wait on a weekly Friday report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) for Covid-19 cases and trends in their county. Friday afternoon is also when most school systems release their Covid-19 information to their community. Some school leaders choose full transparency and share all the data they send to DPH for its weekly report. Their communities know the number of confirmed cases, how many people are quarantined, and clusters in each school.* Other schools provide a scant report that often leaves community members in the dark while confirmed cases continue to break records in Georgia.
This data is supposed to help school leaders decide how safe, and effective, it is to keep students in classrooms. Some schools have opted for virtual and printed materials for entire grades, entire schools, or the whole system as a result of data and historic trends.
On Thursday, August 27th, during what Washington County’s school superintendent described as a “fireside chat,” Dr. Rickey Edmond told almost 100 people attending the online event that only confirmed cases matter. He dismissed the number of students and staff quarantined as”fluid.” I agree that number could be considered fluid, because it can change every day. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases can also change every day. DPH has already elevated Washington County schools to “substantial spread” and “increasing” in its weekly report.
With the state ratcheting up the level of concern for everyone in Washington County’s public schools, and having looked at reports posted by other systems across Georgia, I wondered exactly what DPH requires for its weekly school report. Seeing the reporting form was the best way to know.
A friend once told me, “I love a good Open Records Act request.” Like them, I also love a good Georgia Open Records Act (GORA) request. On Monday, August 30th, I sent one to the Dr. Edmond, copying the Washington County Board of Education members. My request was, “The information I am requesting is for the information used for the Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021. I am requesting the Covid-19 reports and/or data Washington County public schools sent to the Georgia Department of Public Health for its weekly school report.” That’s a pretty straightforward request because DPH requires it, the school is supposed to compile and send it, so releasing all of it doesn’t require extra work.
What I got back from Edmond was, “Reasonable access provided with good faith:
1. In response to your request: Covid-19 information released to the public on August 13, 20, 27, 2021 is attached in a PDF Table.
2. We can’t provide you with “COVID-19 Reports and/or data sent to Georgia Department of Public Health because that information is submitted via electronic portal and the medical form used falls under 50-18-72(a). As a school entity, we must uphold HIPPA, FERPA, and privacy requirements.
3. We have provided you with additional information complied by DPH for your reference.”
A complete and thorough GORA response should always be done “in good faith,” to use Dr. Edmond’s choice of words. The information sent to me isn’t what I asked for, and doesn’t comply with the GORA request. Dr. Edmond insisted that what they send has lots of confidential information in it. I asked that he redact any sensitive information and send me the form so I could see what the state requires for its weekly report on schools in our state. Additionally, saying that the form is completed online and cannot be released otherwise just doesn’t hold water in a school system with an IT department and virtual teaching capacity. Do they not save a copy of what they submit?
At this point, I was even more concerned about what the school system didn’t want to freely provide to the community. Case numbers matter, but so do the number of students and staff out for quarantine, and the number of clusters occurring in school settings. It is possible a school could have a low case load but a very high number of absences due to quarantine, resulting in dwindling classroom numbers.
What are they reporting that they aren’t telling us, and why is it so important to keep that information from us? As North Central Health District Director Michael Hokanson told me on the afternoon of August 27th, the reporting from schools relies on a good faith effort on the schools’ part.
If schools are sloppy with the parameters for collecting data, the data can’t, and shouldn’t, be trusted. If a school system isn’t carefully tracking why students are absent, for example a dental appointment, strep throat, or a death in the family, what you get at the end of the day is a number that tells you nothing about why those students were out of school. Kids and staff out due to quarantine are going to miss a significant number of consecutive school days. That impacts how they are learning, how teachers must adjust, demand for substitutes, and ultimately, if a system should use online resources to keep students up to speed, and everyone healthy.
Edmond told me to contact DPH to get the form that I ask for in my GORA request. Trying to find the right person at DPH, and actually reach them, is a circle of Hell Dante didn’t know about centuries ago. The staffers I did reach are frustrated and exhausted with how their agency is combatting Covid-19. One told me, “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
I left messages at schools, emailed schools, and filled out GORA requests via forms school boards provided on their web sites. One school superintendent called me back eager to share blank copies of the weekly form schools send to DPH and volunteered to send the detailed form required for the district health office. I got the form from more than one system to verify I had the right one.
If a school isn’t committed to collecting accurate data, none of what they report can and should be trusted with full confidence by the state, or the people concerned about the health of every person in that school.
The responsibility of collecting good data falls on the Board of Education requiring it, and the schools led by Dr. Edmond following through. Thousands of families in Washington County are making life and death decisions for their children and themselves during this pandemic. For the Board of Education, Dr. Edmond, and school leaders to be satisfied with a refusal to collect good data and share it with families is not only a disservice to Washington County families. It shows a huge distain for the exhausted healthcare providers and DPH staffers working in the county and across our state.
*From GA DPH, “Laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 in two or more people [students or staff] with symptom onset/collection dates within a 14 day period who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing”).