Less than 1% of Texas students who returned to public school in person have tested positive for COVID-19

Students draw self-portraits in a kindergarten class on the first day of in-person classes at Highland Village Elementary. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

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More than 2,300 Texas public school students, 0.21% of those who have returned to school in person since the beginning of this academic year, have reported testing positive for COVID-19, according to a dashboard the state will release Thursday in a first effort to publicly track the way the pandemic is impacting public schools.

The Texas Department of State Health Services and Texas Education Agency are expected to begin releasing the weekly number of coronavirus cases in each school district starting next Wednesday.

Of about 5.5 million public school students in Texas, 1,101,065 have returned to school in person or are participating in activities on campus grounds. At least 2,344 of those have reported testing positive for COVID-19 as of this past Sunday, according to the dashboard.

The data also shows 2,175 school employees who have come back to school in person reported testing positive for COVID-19. Texas has not tabulated the total number of employees who have returned to schools in person. It is less than 800,078, the total number employed by public schools, including teachers, contractors, and support staff.

School administrators must now fill out forms each week reporting any new COVID-19 cases their schools were notified of the previous week, whether the cases were contracted on or off campus, and whether the entire campus closed as a result. The reports must include any student, teacher or staff member who participates in any on-campus activity and has been confirmed to have a COVID-19 infection.

The total number of infections school districts are reporting is likely an undercount. Neither the federal nor state governments require or recommend universal testing in schools, in part because large-scale testing is still not feasible. Many of Texas' biggest districts will not require testing of anyone at any point.

State guidelines say schools must instruct individuals who know or suspect they have COVID-19 to stay at home through the 14-day incubation period. But they can return to campus without being tested if they show improvement.

With the virus still spreading quickly in many Texas communities, experts have been saying for weeks it was not a matter of whether infections would appear in schools, but when. Many districts will not be able to keep the virus off their campuses; their challenge is to keep the inevitable cases from sparking outbreaks.

Cases have popped up all over the state since schools began opening in person last month, forcing students and staff in Central, North, and South Texas to stay home in case they were exposed. Mount Vernon ISD, a small district 100 miles northeast of Dallas, had to temporarily close this week after cases began to rise. And other districts have taken steps like canceling sports games.

Experts have emphasized that releasing public data is critical for families — as well as political leaders — to assess the risks and rewards of sending students back to school. More than 10% of students were not engaged with virtual learning this spring, according to state data, and many students rely on their schools for access to food and medical care.

Texas teachers have also piloted their own effort to track COVID-19 cases in schools. The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers set up a website that shows the safety reports and infections school employees have reported in their own schools. AFT leaders said they do their best to verify reports they receive, but acknowledged the website may contain errors or duplicates, meaning it is also not an accurate picture of COVID-19 in Texas schools.

Research indicates that children are less likely than adults to suffer severe symptoms of the coronavirus, though children with preexisting conditions like asthma or diabetes may be more vulnerable. And children can play a role in transmitting the virus to their teachers, parents and grandparents, though scientists are still studying to what extent.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week indicated that of 391,814 known infections of people under 21 from February to July, just 121 died. But the racial disparities were stark: 74% of the children who died were Hispanic or Black — numbers far higher than their representation in the population.

In Texas, 53% of public school students are Hispanic, and 13% are Black.