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As soon as they learn that someone on campus has either tested positive or is showing symptoms of COVID-19, schools in Louisiana are supposed to log details of that case into a statewide health database.

Many don’t. Or it can be weeks or even months before they do.

Widespread noncompliance, or late compliance, has made the database an unreliable barometer of how much the disease is spreading in elementary and secondary schools.

Scott Devillier, superintendent of Zachary public schools, suggests forming a committee of state and local school and health officials to review the reporting system and suggest ways to improve or replace it.

Devillier said his school district, home to 5,500 children, has dutifully inputted cases since the system was first launched in September 2020. But he can understand why other schools are opting not to participate.

“Some of the people saying we need to do this (system) don’t really understand the daily operations of a school,” Devillier said.

The reporting process, he said, duplicated existing reporting that many schools were already doing and has been a burden on his staff at a time when the pandemic placed unprecedented demands on schools.

“You are already contract tracing, that takes manpower,” Devillier said. “You have teachers going out (positive for COVID), and you have to cover their classes. It really was crazy the last two years.”

COVID numbers have plummeted in Louisiana in recent months, leading Gov. John Bel Edwards to lift his emergency order after two years. Many schools have scaled back their restrictions on safety rules aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

Public health experts worry about going too far in relaxing restrictions since COVID cases are rising again in some locales, and there may be future, more severe variants that could reverse recent progress in combatting the disease.

David Slaughter, chief executive officer of Baton Rouge-based Orion Laboratories, used to compare the weekly reports generated by the state’s K-12 reporting system to the number of COVID tests that his own lab conducts in schools, but he eventually gave up.

“To be honest, I stopped looking at the K-12 reports because I just realized at some point that it’s just fantasy,” Slaughter said. “It’s not accurate information.”

Slaughter said the state should either mandate reporting, and enforce compliance, or it should try another approach that produces more reliable data and more buy-in.

“You have to get the people to agree to do it,” he said. “Something is better than nothing.”

The future of the reporting system is unclear.

Kevin Litten, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health, said the agency’s epidemiology team is still deciding “about how to approach K-12 COVID reporting for the 2022-23 school year.” While acknowledging that the data is incomplete because it is self-reported, Litten nevertheless said it helped LDH respond better to outbreaks and devise better “school-specific mitigation measures.”

“LDH has continued to collect and analyze data from the reporting and found it useful in developing recommendations and providing visibility into transmission — especially distinguishing between cases that resulted from transmission within the school setting versus those that resulted from community exposures,” Litten said.

The system launched soon after the start of the 2020-21 school year, when schools were first reopening to in-person instruction after being shuttered early in the pandemic. Louisiana is one of at least 35 states that ended up creating COVID reporting systems for schools.

Besides aiding health officials, Louisiana’s initiative was meant to increase public transparency via weekly reports. State and local leaders had been getting complaints about the often limited case information schools were releasing.

"We want people to have confidence in what we’re doing,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in August 2020 when he announced the new reporting system. “And what we know is that if you are not sharing data, quickly and transparently, then that undermines confidence."

Transparency, however, proved to be limited. The weekly reports break down cases only to the state’s 64 parishes. Some states, including Mississippi and Texas, report COVID data for every public school in their state.

While parish-level reporting tells you something in parishes where the only schools are run by the parish public school district, it’s much less informative in places where that’s not the case.

Take East Baton Rouge Parish, which arguably has the most complicated education setup in Louisiana. It’s home to four public school districts, 28 public charter schools and 43 state-approved private schools. That adds up to about 160 school sites that are supposed to report their COVID cases to LDH.

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The weekly K-12 reports also have big holes.

This is clear when you compare K-12 reports to another weekly LDH report which documents all COVID cases among 5-to-17 year-olds, the age range for almost all schoolchildren. That report catalogs all cases emanating from labs, pharmacies and medical establishments across the state.

So far this school year, K-12 schools have reported almost 66,000 COVID cases among students on their campuses. By contrast, the other report shows more than 107,000 COVID cases so far this school year among 5-to-17 year-olds.

The school-only count suggests that about 8% of school-age children in Louisiana have caught COVID since August. The broader report suggests the true figure is more than 13%.

Undercounting is most apparent during spikes.

In the second week of January, when the omicron variant was at its height, schools reported about 8,700 cases among students, but there were more than 16,200 cases among 5-to-17 year-olds that week.

During that record week in January, schools in 12 of the 64 parishes in the state reported no COVID cases at all. Assumption, as well as East and West Feliciana, were among those 12 non-reporting parishes.

And even if a school district reports cases, that doesn’t mean all its schools will. In the second week of January, about 950 of the more than 1,700 public and private schools in the state didn’t report any cases.

During lulls like the one Louisiana is experiencing now, case reporting becomes almost non-existent. For the week ending March 27, the most recent available, only 92 schools in the state reported a case, the second lowest week all year. Forty-four parishes reported no cases at all that week.

Some parishes regularly fail to report cases in schools.

Tensas Parish has never reported a single case in the 18 months since reporting was first mandated. LaSalle Parish has not reported a case since fall 2020. Seven more parishes have reported cases om fewer than five weeks this school year.

Some of that reporting is well after the fact. More than half of the cases in the latest K-12 report were old, according to LDH, with “a test collection date more than one month prior to the reporting week.”

West Feliciana, which reported cases last school year, has not bothered this school year. The lone exception was a one-time report of 66 cases in late August when schools closed for Hurricane Ida.

Superintendent Hollis Milton does often share West Feliciana’s district’s positivity rate in a weekly message to parents.

Milton said he grew disenchanted with the state reporting system as it became clear that it was a one-way street, with schools doing the bulk of the work and not seeing much in return. He said he thought the state would mine all of the data schools were providing and share its findings with schools and the public.

While state health officials have been helpful, he said he’s seen the best success during the pandemic when working with medical professionals in West Feliciana

“I think at the end of the day it’s got to be left up to the locals to make the calls on this,” Milton said. “I think when you are very close to a situation, you can make adjustments.”

Routine surveillance testing for COVID is a new contributor to case counts in Louisiana schools. This federally funded, state-administered program known as Safer, Smarter Schools tests students and staff once a week at hundreds of schools across the state.

Slaughter, with Orion Labs, which visits 215 schools each week in Baton Rouge and Acadiana, said positive tests from labs like his can account for 30% of all cases in the weekly K-12 reports. He said his staff handles all the case reporting, removing burdens off the backs of school officials. Participating schools also have a much better handle on their COVID situation than schools that do not.

“If they don’t have the information, they are flying blind,” he said.

Schools without surveillance testing, though, face a different set of incentives. Reporting cases right away means they will have to act in ways they’d rather not, Slaughter said, namely sending students and staff into quarantine — or at worst sending classrooms, even entire schools, virtual.

“If you report a case immediately, you have to do quarantines and contact tracing,” Slaughter said. “If you report a case a month later, it’s worthless, you don’t have to do anything.”


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.