Parents question validity of CUSD virus data - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Parents question validity of CUSD virus data

December 6th, 2020 SanTan Sun News
Parents question validity of CUSD virus data

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Candace Ditzler was surprised when she called the Chandler Unified School District to report her 9-year-old daughter had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

While speaking to someone from the district’s health office, she said, Ditzler was informed that her daughter, a fourth grader at Jacobson Elementary School, would likely not be counted in the district’s public data of COVID-19 cases.

CUSD started publishing numbers of COVID-19 cases at each of its 46 campuses after it returned to in-person teaching in September. The data are updated daily and show how many students and staff at each school have been infected thus far.   

Ditzler said she was shocked to learn the district’s data does not represent every student who tests positive for the virus.

She said CUSD told her that students who were not infected on campus do not get included in the data dashboard.

Because Ditzler had cautiously taken her daughter out of school a few days before getting her tested, the mother discovered her daughter’s case wasn’t considered a school-related infection.   

“I was really upset at that point,” Ditzler recalled.

It didn’t make sense to Ditzler because she couldn’t understand how CUSD could conclude definitively her daughter was not infected on campus and would omit her from the district dashboard.

“That to me seems really shady because if a kid’s positive, a kid’s positive,” she said.

On Thursday, the district issued an email to parents that stresseed, “It is important to note that if a student or staff who have a confirmed positive COVID-19 test but did not participate in any on-campus activities during their infectious period are currently NOT reported on the dashboard.”

It said the dashboard is meant to “communicate the active confirmed cases” and that officials are “developing a process to communicate confirmed non-campus exposure cases on the dashboard – an addition that would be implemented next month.

Ditzler’s situation demonstrates the complexity that goes with trying to manage and track a pandemic within a district of more than 50,000 students and employees.

It also comes as COVID-19 is surging in Chandler and across Arizona.

Data the county health department released Dec. 3 – the latest available – show both cases per 100,000 people and the percentage of positive tests have steadily risen district-wide.

The data show that for the week of Nov. 22, cases per 100,000 had gone from 281 to 499 while positive test results rose from 10.5 percent to 11.5 percent in both the city and Chandler Unified. Both metrics were at levels indicating substantial virus spread.

Last month, the third metric – percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms – rose for the first time in months into a level showing moderate spread.

As the metrics have risen, CUSD administrators and board members have been the subject of intense scrutiny by parents looking closely at how they will handle educating hordes of children amid the pandemic.

Hundreds of emails have been sent to the district’s leaders – some demanding schools be kept open and others they be closed.

CUSD officials have repeatedly found themselves making decisions that can’t satisfy both groups.

Ditzler said the divisiveness among the community’s reaction to the pandemic is starting to make her lose trust in how the district is managing it.

“I feel like it just keeps getting more and more political and it keeps getting to where it’s not about the children’s health anymore, it’s about making themselves look good,” she said.

When the district shut down back in March, Ditzler said she went to great lengths to protect her daughter from catching COVID-19 while at home.

The family rarely left the house, wore masks regularly, and limited face-to-face contact with friends. Ditzler said she had to be extra careful about avoiding COVID-19 because her mother is a cancer patient and she worries about exposing her to the virus.

But within a month of Ditzler’s daughter returning to school, the fourth grader had tested positive for the virus.

Ditzler said she was alerted by the district on Nov. 6 that someone in her daughter’s class had contracted the virus. The letter indicated her daughter was ruled out as someone who had close contact with the infected individual and so did not need to stay at home for two weeks.

More than 1,800 students in the district have already had to go into quarantine since September.

Ditzler said she questioned whether her daughter was exposed to the infected classmate and decided to take her out of school. By Nov. 15, test results came back and showed Ditzler’s daughter had caught the virus.     

Her daughter has been experiencing the virus’ classic symptoms for the last couple weeks, Ditzler said, and feels guilty about possibly catching the virus from one of her classmates.

Now, she has been left to struggle with deciding when to send her daughter back to Jacobson Elementary.

Since situations like her daughter’s might not get counted in the district’s data, Ditzler is suspicious about trusting the dashboard as a resource for helping her in that decision.    

“There’s a lot of us questioning the dashboard and trying to figure out what in the world they’re doing,” Ditzler said.

Kat McIntosh, who has two children attending CUSD schools, said she thinks the district’s dashboard is “misleading” and might not give the most accurate picture of the virus’ presence in classrooms.

Maricopa County lists CUSD as having “substantial” risk for COVID-19 exposure on its website, she noted, yet the district uses its data to justify keeping its schools open.

Last month, the district adopted new guidelines outlining when it would shut down individual schools and return to virtual learning. These guidelines are based on the rate of infection at each campus.

McIntosh, a former Hamilton High School teacher, regularly tracks the number of COVID-19 cases reported at her daughter’s school, Willis Junior High, and recently noticed a change in the data that caught her attention.

CUSD listed Willis as having zero active cases and three resolved cases of COVID-19 – meaning the infected students were cleared to return to school. The next day, McIntosh noticed Willis had listed four resolved cases.

McIntosh was alarmed by the change since Willis had not listed any new active cases before adding another resolved case to its numbers.

“There is something wonky about the reporting,” she said. “It’s just really weird.”

CUSD says its numbers are based on information from the Maricopa County Public Health Department and cases voluntarily reported by families with sick children.

McIntosh, a cancer survivor, has decided to have her daughter attend school once every nine days in order to limit her exposure to the virus. The district can only disenroll a student if they miss 10 consecutive days of school, she noted.

McIntosh hopes CUSD will offer a virtual teaching option that will allow her daughter to receive more instruction from teachers remotely.

The district’s online school is too text-based, she said, and doesn’t work for students who need more teacher instruction.

“I just wish they would exercise some leadership skills and get creative,” McIntosh added.