Washington, DC October 28, 2020 – United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.), members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, ) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, U.S Department of Education (ED) Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield, urging them to issue detailed guidance for elementary and secondary schools, in coordination with state and local officials, to ensure complete, transparent, and timely reporting of COVID-19 cases. Their letter also asks how the federal health agencies plan to study outbreaks in K-12 schools in order to understand the effectiveness of different mitigation strategies.
“On October 20, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated that she believes the Department of Education is not responsible for tracking school districts’ reopening plans or positive COVID-19 cases in schools,” the senators wrote. “This sentiment represents a complete abdication of national leadership, which has made it difficult for local education leaders, families, and policymakers to accurately evaluate the risk of physically reopening schools. ”
Currently, families and communities must rely on limited and voluntary reporting systems when making decisions regarding their children. The CDC recommends that school staff and families self-report symptoms, cases, and exposure to COVID-19 and that schools work closely with state, tribal, local, or territorial health departments to report cases. Not even half of states are publicly reporting COVID-19 cases in schools; and most are not publishing any information, only reporting some cases, or are still developing plans to begin reporting some information regarding COVID-19 cases in schools in the future.
“Federal guidance beyond this is lacking, resulting in significant variation across schools, school districts, and states,” the senators wrote. “This lack of clear guidance results in inconsistent information across localities, states, and the nation and is making it extremely challenging for schools and families to make informed decisions.”
In their letter, the senators urge HHS, ED, and CDC to provide further guidance to elementary and secondary schools about how COVID-19 cases should be reported to state, local, and federal health officials, including the timeline for reporting suspected and confirmed cases, demographic data that should be provided for each case, and how reporting should protect student privacy and comply with applicable privacy laws. It also asks whether the agencies have plans to aggregate and publish data, including demographic data, as well as how they plan to study outbreaks in order to understand the effectiveness of different mitigation strategies. Finally, it asks about the coordination between HHS, ED, and CDC regarding COVID-19 data collection at K-12 schools.
Senator Warren has repeatedly called for more detailed national COVID-19 data reporting in order to treat and contain the virus and address its disproportionate impact on communities of color. She has called for better reporting standards and protections in congregate settings including schools, college campuses, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, addiction treatment centers, prisons, and workplaces such as meatpacking plants.