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Texas updates coronavirus case totals in schools, but the data remains limited and murky

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Teachers ensure students have their masks on correctly on the first day of in-person classes at Highland Village Elementary. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

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The Texas Department of State Health Services has posted new data on COVID-19 cases in schools, one week after it had to retract its first attempt at providing district-by-district breakdowns of reported infections.

The state health agency and Texas Education Agency plan to release weekly compilations of case numbers statewide and at the district level as reported to them by school districts. The first attempt at a district-level report was taken off the agency website within a day because of "issues with data entry by some schools and the process for importing the number of COVID-19 cases submitted by schools," according to a joint statement from the agencies early Wednesday.

Despite the new corrections and updated numbers, the data is still messy and challenging to comprehensively analyze. The district-by-district breakdown hides case numbers for districts with fewer than 50 students attending in person, to protect individuals' privacy, making it impossible to calculate exact percentages or totals.

The 333 school districts with hidden case numbers reported more COVID-19 cases than students enrolled in person, which is almost certainly inaccurate. They account for about 1,200 total cases in students and about 1,500 total cases in staff members, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

Of the data that is not hidden, the broader analysis appears to remain unchanged: The vast majority of known cases among Texas public school students who have returned to classrooms were found in middle and high school students. To date, districts said most infections were either contracted off campus or their source was unknown. A very small percentage of cases was reported as contracted at school.

The statewide total released by the health agency, which includes the hidden case numbers, provides more clarity.

From late July through Sept. 27, Texas districts reported 5,725 known cases of COVID-19 among the more than 1 million of 5.5 million public school students attending classes in person. That is less than 1% though the data is certainly an undercount. (The estimated number of students attending public schools in person has dipped slightly from a previously reported 1.1 million, due to data reporting and processing issues, the agencies say.)

About 4,132 staff members have reported COVID-19 infections over the same time period, though the state does not report or keep track of how many of the 800,078 total salaried, hourly and contracted school employees are back in person.

Experts say it's challenging to use the state's limited data to draw conclusions about the risks of in-person instruction, especially since so few students and staff are being tested for the virus, and many people contract the virus without showing symptoms.

Before the data came out Wednesday, the Texas State Teachers Association, one of the interest groups most critical of the way schools are reopening, released a statement calling it "inexcusable" that state officials had not released accurate information on the number of infections. They called for that data to be released per district as well as campus.

"The state of Texas has adopted policies that are forcing many teachers and school employees to return to classrooms before it is safe for them or their students during this pandemic," said the association's president, Ovidia Morales. "The state officials who are putting them in harm’s way can’t even keep track of how many COVID-19 infections have been reported in all the school districts, much less in individual campuses."

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.