CDC director cites this website to back in-school learning. Its designer calls that ‘bananas’

A Brown University economics professor said she is surprised to hear the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is relying on a website she started to promote in-person learning for schoolchildren.

At a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing last Thursday, Dr. Robert Redfield said that a growing body of data showed that kids are not catching the virus in school. On Tuesday, a CDC spokesperson told CNN that Redfield was referring to a data tracker called the Covid-19 School Response Dashboard.

“Dr. Redfield was referring to early evidence from an ongoing Brown University analysis — as well as observational reports that CDC has received from school districts across the country — that suggests Covid-19 is not spreading at high levels inside of K-12 schools during instruction,” the CDC spokesperson said.

The tracker currently shows a daily coronavirus case rate of 17 per 100,000 students — far below a 1% rate.

But that is in no small part because students are not routinely tested, said Emily Oster, a professor of economics and public policy at Brown who started the dashboard. So no one knows whether they are, in fact, infected.

“That’s the biggest issue with all of this reporting,” Oster told CNN. “We know that kids can be asymptomatic.”

The website incorporates data that schools and school districts voluntarily publish, along with data that some report directly to the site, but it’s far from complete, Oster said. She said she was surprised that Redfield referenced it when he said that a growing body of research showed kids were not getting infected in school.

“It is totally bananas,” she said. “I think we are doing as good a job as we can. This is not my field. It’s crazy.”

The Trump administration’s position has long been that schools should maintain in-person learning when possible. Redfield is not alone — National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci has also said multiple times he believes kids belong in school.

“Dr. Redfield believes school can be one of the safest places for K-12 youth during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that the risk of closing K-12 schools outweighs the risks of keeping them open,” a CDC spokesperson told CNN.

“Beyond helping ensure educational advancement, K-12 schools offer nutrition, mental health, socialization, and other services and experiences that are critical for our nation’s youth.”

Oster said she started the website out of personal interest. Her own children are attending school in-person, and she believes it can be done safely. But there is not currently any website that she knows of that supports the argument that children are not being infected at school.

“No one is collecting systematic data and it seems like a tremendous oversight,” she said.

So she started doing it — but is the first to say that her data is incomplete.

“If we can get more participation from more states, it can help us understand these patterns and share information about what works and what doesn’t,” Oster said.

“It’s clear to me that a federally funded, organized effort on this would be potentially better. We need more resources on this problem.”

The CDC did not have an immediate comment on Oster’s reaction.

Redfield has not insisted that all schools got back to immediate face-to-face teaching

“Dr. Redfield encourages communities to make decisions about in-person learning based upon transmission levels in the community and also within schools’ educational settings, which can be much lower than transmission levels within a community,” the CDC spokesperson said.

“Some extracurricular activities might pose an increased risk of transmission, particularly if physical distance is not maintained and face masks are not worn. CDC will also be analyzing data on school transmission and will release its findings when they are available.”

The tracker shows data on more than 8.9 million students, including 4 million attending in person. It shows a daily coronavirus case rate of 17 per 100,000 students for October 26 through November 8. Staff case rates are at 27 per 100,000, according to the dashboard.

It relies heavily on data from Texas and New York.

The Covid-19 School Response Dashboard is supported by the School Superintendents Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Software company Qualtrics manages the website and data.

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