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Texas Department of State Health Services withdraws data on school infections, citing ‘issues’

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Editor’s note: After this story was published, the Texas Department of State Health Services removed the data from its website, citing “issues” with the numbers. The agency says it will post new data on Monday, Sept. 28 after consulting with the Texas Education Agency. This story will be updated to reflect any changes.

The vast majority of known coronavirus cases among Texas public school students who have returned to classrooms in person this school year were found in older students, new state data released Thursday shows.

According to the data, which includes self-reported, test-confirmed cases from hundreds of school districts across the state, 69% of infected students were in grades seven through 12, while just 15% were in grades four through six and 16% in grade three or lower. Experts say that split makes sense, since there is some evidence that older students are more likely to be symptomatic and thus more likely to be tested.

Statewide, at least 3,735 Texas public school students who have returned to campus in person this school year have tested positive for the coronavirus — less than 1% of students who are learning in person, according to enrollment estimates from the Texas Education Agency.

Cases among students or staff were reported by some 700 districts and charter schools across the state, according to the data, which is current through Sept. 20. The state recorded 1,212 new cases among public school students between Sept. 13 and Sept. 20 and 660 new cases among staff.

Those figures are a minimum, since many people contract the coronavirus without ever showing symptoms, and testing is rare and particularly difficult to obtain for children. Only about 1.1 million of Texas' roughly 5.5 million public school students were on campus in person during their first week of school, the education agency estimates.

The data also shows that 2,995 school employees who have returned to campuses have reported testing positive. That, too, represents a small fraction of school employees. Not all of the state’s 800,000 public school employees have been on campus yet this year.

Experts said it is difficult to draw conclusions about the risks of in-person schools with Texas' limited data, especially given that so few children are being tested for the virus. But across the country, there has been some cautious optimism so far.

“It’s sort of like somebody asking, ‘Is this forest healthy? Here’s these three trees.’ You can say these three trees look healthy, so that’s probably good, but does it tell us much about the rest of the forest? Not so much,” said Sara Johnson, a pediatrics professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We don’t have a systematic way to look at all the trees in the forest ... and that’s a really non-trivial problem. All that said, it’s encouraging — these numbers look preliminarily promising given all we know about the problems with them.”

Few confirmed coronavirus infections in Texas public schools are known to have occurred on campus, according to the data.

Just 5.64% of known coronavirus infections were believed to have been transmitted on campus, whereas 48% of infections were believed to be contracted off-campus and the rest were unknown.

But many districts reported not knowing where infections took place, making it difficult to draw conclusions about whether students and school employees are contracting the virus on campus. Lewisville and Frisco ISD, two of the state’s largest districts, each said they could not be sure where any of their cases were contracted.

The numbers, the first comprehensive state data showing where cases have occurred in Texas, illustrate how widespread infections are. More than half of Texas' roughly 1,200 school districts have confirmed at least one case in a student or staff member who returned in person. That’s true even as some districts, including some of the state’s largest, have yet to open their doors for in-person learning.

Garland ISD, one of the state’s largest districts, reported the most student cases, with 97. That’s just 0.5% of the roughly 19,500 students who have returned to campuses in person this year, according to late August data from the district.

Large-scale testing is still not feasible in much of Texas, and neither the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the Texas Education Agency recommends universal testing in schools. The CDC estimates that 40% of all COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, meaning without widespread testing, hundreds or thousands of cases are likely going undetected.

Many Texas districts do not require testing at any point. Individuals who know or suspect they have COVID-19 must stay home through the incubation period, but can return to campus without testing negative for the virus if they show improvement.

Experts predicted weeks ago that since the virus is still spreading across the state, school administrators would not be able to keep their campuses entirely virus-free. Their challenge, instead, is to keep those inevitable cases from starting broader outbreaks by taking proper mitigation steps.

Lubbock Health Authority Dr. Ron Cook said he was encouraged by last week’s state data on schools, which showed that at least 2,344 public school students who had returned in person had tested positive for the virus.

“We don’t expect the virus to go away,” he said, calling the early numbers “exceedingly low.”

Nationally, there have been thousands of cases in public schools, but some experts have expressed optimism about the low rates of infection.

Of course, it’s early — millions of students in Texas have yet to return in person — and these figures are all but certain to be undercounts.

The coronavirus has put Texas school districts, and parents, in the difficult position of balancing health and educational concerns for their children. Students learn better in person, particularly those with disabilities, and school provides access to food and medical care for many low-income students.

Research shows that children can contract the coronavirus, but are less likely than adults to suffer severe consequences and require hospitalization. Children can also play a role in transmitting the disease, though experts are still studying to what extent.

September report from the CDC found just 121 COVID-19 deaths of people under 21, a tiny fraction of the 391,814 known infections among that age group in the United States from February to July. But there were stark racial disparities: 74% of the children who died were Hispanic or Black, proportions far higher than their representation in the population. In Texas, 53% of public school students are Hispanic, and 13% are Black.

Chris Essig contributed to reporting.