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COVID Dashboard Helps Ohio Determine When Schools Are Safe

The dashboard will collect coronavirus data from schools and combine it with information from the state’s health department to create a better understanding as to when it's safe to return to a classroom.

(TNS) — A dashboard developed by Ohio State University researchers is helping Ohio superintendents make crucial decisions on learning remotely, as the coronavirus continues to rage throughout the state.

Ohio state reporting guidelines require schools to send information through local health departments with the number of new and total coronavirus cases in both staff and students. The COVID-19 Analytics and Targeted Surveillance System, or CATS, takes information from the state and combines it with specific district information, like nurse visits and student and staff absences.

“The lack of federal guidelines for superintendents about which learning modality is the best based on science and the lack of state guidelines has really been insightful because it’s put a lot of pressure on superintendents to become public health experts, to become epidemiologists, to become infectious disease experts,” said Anne Trinh, senior program manager at the College of Public Health’s Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies.

Ayaz Hyder, who is leading the project, said Ohio’s mandatory reporting requirements for K-12 schools are meant to deliver information to the public, but aren’t designed as a surveillance system. A surveillance system, like the CATS dashboard, allows for officials to effectively interpret the data to make decisions.

Before the end of the year, 19 schools in central Ohio, including Columbus City Schools, will be working with Ohio State researchers on using CATS, with at least 10 already onboarded. Districts need to work directly with OSU to use the system.

Ohio did not place restrictions on school districts, other than mask mandates. Local health departments and governments took the next step, issuing recommendations or guidance for how schools should make closing decisions. The state’s Department of Education has offered recommendations and information on the different risks that come with learning models, but no mandates.

When the Cuyahoga County Board of Health recommended schools begin remotely, some districts followed that guidance, but others turned to parent input and localized data for answers and decided to start hybrid.

When Cuyahoga County issued a stay-at-home advisory which recommended schools switch to remote learning after Thanksgiving break, school districts went through the same decision-making process.

Hyder said looking at these decisions at a county level can ignore the variances within the county boundaries. Some may have a blend of urban and rural, and even within metropolitan areas, there can be differences in school capacity, demographics and economic status.

“No one was able to really get an idea exactly what’s going on in (the actual schools),” he said.

The CATS dashboard includes comparisons of cases per 100,000 people, or occurrence rates, for both the county and the school district attendance zone. Data provided by school districts allows for officials to see the percentage of student and staff absences relative to a normal threshold, as well as a breakdown of cases by age and other demographics.

Researchers partner with the school districts on interpreting data and coding it for efficiency, as well as incorporating previous trends. In Ohio, which has more than 600 school districts, multiple districts using the same system might make it easier for officials to see what’s going on in the region. Researchers also are developing models that examine the relationship between spread in a county and spread in a school district.

Hyder hopes developing the system will have multiple applications, like tracking the flu.

“What I’m hopeful is that the infrastructure that we’re putting together is going to be able to solve problems, not just pandemics, but other things, other kinds of outcomes that have public health relevance but also affect children,” Hyder said.

(c)2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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