Editor’s note: Less than an hour after state Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, promised to find out about discrepancies on the Department of Health and Human Services’ school dashboard, Commissioner Lori Shibinette told him she will look into the matter immediately. See updated comments below.
By NANCY WEST and PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
If you are a parent trying to figure out what’s going on with COVID-19 in New Hampshire schools on the state Department of Health and Human Services’s school dashboard, you are better off looking to your local district because the state’s school dashboard is tough to find, long out of date, and inaccurate once you get there, according to a review by InDepthNH.org and interviews with officials.
Having accurate statistics is particularly important now since school started at the end of August because the number of children under age 18 contracting COVID-19 has been dramatically increasing since then. During the last two weeks of August, the number of children under age 18 accounted for 16 or 17 percent of the total daily COVID-19 cases ranging from 44 to 64 new cases a day.
On Monday, the statewide data released by the department in a news release showed 300 cases involved children under age 18 of the 1,030 cases reported, or almost 30 percent. The Monday report included all case numbers from Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Yet the state school dashboard on Tuesday shows only 161 cases of COVID-19 both on and off campuses for all public schools in New Hampshire grades K through 12. While there is no way to know how many of the 300 were school aged, the difference raises questions of accuracy.
State Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, a physician, said when he learned of the inaccuracies that he will contact the department to figure out what is happening on the school dashboard.
“It is critical we get to the bottom of this and make sure the school dashboard is accurate and reflects what’s going on in the schools,” Sherman said.
It’s one of the tools parents, schools and administrators need to keep children safe, Sherman said.
“What this is all about is transparency. If they tell you the dashboard is up to date and you find it is not and there are gross inaccuracies, that puts into question all the information on their other dashboards. What’s to say the rest isn’t inaccurate,” Sherman said.
It’s not just for parents, he said. Administrators and others who are making decisions for schools relative to COVID-19 rely on complete and accurate reporting on the school dashboard, Sherman said.
This is especially important for those under 12 who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, he said.
“I will be reaching out to the department for clarification, to make sure for the sake of my constituents that it is accurate,” Sherman said.
At 5:05 p.m. Tuesday after InDepthNH.org posted this story, Sen. Sherman said after he contacted Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, she immediately responded and promised to address his concerns.
Shibinette told him she would immediately look into why the out-of-date map showing dozens of schools in hybrid or remote learning when none are was still posted on the state’s school dashboard. Shibinette told Sherman she would also look into whether the discrepancies in case numbers on the state school dashboard could be the result of local school dashboards leaving individual cases on longer than the state’s dashboard making the local numbers appear higher. And she wondered if some of the discrepancy could be caused by students being tested outside of school and not reported to the state, Sherman said.
While DHHS’s spokesman Jake Leon has insisted for months that the difference between the number of COVID-19 cases on the state’s school dashboard and what local schools report to parents is simply lag time in reporting, the differences are far more out of sync than simply case count.
For instance, the map on the state dashboard shows at least five schools are teaching in full remote status and several dozen more are in hybrid with some in-person and some remote teaching.
In fact, there are no schools teaching in hybrid or fully remote status; all are offering fully in-person instruction, according to Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
“We do not control the school dashboard,” Edelblut said in an email. “The schools submit their status to the Department of Health and Human Services. I do not think that instructional status has been updated since the governor’s order for in-person instruction last spring.”
With the cessation of the state of emergency, and to be compliant with the State Board of Education’s recently advanced remote instruction rules, all schools must offer in-person instruction five days per week, Edelblut said.
A school is permitted to offer remote instruction to those students who cannot attend in-person instruction, including in cases where the student has contracted COVID-19, is a household contact of someone with COVID-19 required to quarantine, or has other family circumstances that prevent them from participating in in-person instruction, but only on a temporary basis, Edelblut said.
But spokesman Leon insisted the differences result from a lag in reporting COVID-19 cases on the school dashboard, consistent with last year.
“As has been true throughout the pandemic, the organization experiencing cases is the first to know and schools do a great job of sharing information with their constituents about COVID-19 activity within their facilities in real time,” Leon said.
It usually takes several days before those same cases are reported to DHHS and posted to the state dashboard, Leon said. “Schools and school districts remain the best resource for real time information on what’s happening inside the building,” Leon said.
Former acting state epidemiologist Rich DiPentima, who has been critical of Gov. Chris Sununu’s handling of the pandemic, said posting out-of-date information on the state’s school dashboard raises questions about the accuracy of the state’s statistics on COVID-19.
“I would hope they are giving us their best data,” DiPentima said. “I don’t know. I have no way to cross check.”
DiPentima also said the state has abdicated “responsibility to school boards with no public health experience or expertise.”
Overall, figuring out the decision-making process has been frustrating, he said.
“How much is based in politics and how much is based in science,” DiPentima said.
The state’s school dashboard map reports Rindge Memorial School, three schools in Rochester and Pelham High School as teaching in remote, but they are all teaching in-person. The date beneath the map on the DHHS website Tuesday says Sept. 20, 2021, so it appears up to date as of Monday.
The map shows dozens of public schools grade K to 12, including in Lisbon, Manchester, Nashua, Hopkinton and Salem as being in hybrid teaching mode, but they, too, are all in-person.
And the state dashboard says Pinkerton Academy in Derry is the only school in the state that is in full COVID-19 outbreak status with two cases. But Pinkerton’s director of communication, Julia Mitchell, said on Friday the school’s director of health checked with the state and confirmed that the school is not in the middle of an outbreak.
Mitchell said there were 10 new school-related COVID-19 cases last week.
The state dashboard appears to routinely underreport cases. For instance, the Manchester school district dashboard shows 66 active cases as of Friday, while the state’s dashboard showed 9.
Jackie Garland, principal of Lisbon Regional School, said the K through 12 school with about 320 students has never operated in hybrid mode, although the state dashboard says it is still in hybrid with two cases of COVID-19. Garland said the school had 10 cases among students and no cases among staff as of last count Friday.
Last year, Lisbon went fully remote on Nov. 9 and returned to in-person Jan. 4 and that hasn’t changed, Garland said, adding the policy was mask-optional until recently.
Last week the school board met to deal with the increasing number of infections, Garland said.
“We were mask-optional, but now we are required to wear face masks both inside and outside,” Garland said.
Garland said she reports new cases to the state as soon as she learns of them but getting onboard with reporting to the state was difficult.
“It took a while to get ahold of DHHS to get the form to report. I was on hold quite a long time,” Garland said.
She said there is no back-up plan to go remote if the cases skyrocket.
“We do not have that as an option,” Garland said, “The governor and commissioner do not support going remote.”
Any decisions relative to COVID-19 in the future will be up to the school board, she said.
Concord School District Superintendent Kathleen Murphy said the schools have had a mask mandate since the beginning of the year.
On Friday Murphy said there were 22 students and 8 staff who tested positive. The state’s dashboard showed five active infections in three of the district’s schools that day.
Concord also performs rapid tests for COVID-19 for students if their parents allow it. Positive results are reported immediately to the state, she said. The school also learns of positive tests from parents and more rarely from the state, she said.
“We’re getting recommendations and ultimately our school board is making the decisions,” Murphy said.
Tough to find
To find the state school dashboard, go to the state Department of Health and Human Services’ website. Click on the mobile vaccination van icon that says, “planning an event.” Then click on the “vaccination data” pull down. Then click on “schools.” It’s an interactive site that lets you choose all schools or individual schools and also lets you choose all active cases on and off campus. It says it is for the most current school year. On Tuesday it says there are 161 cases of COVID-19 in all the K to 12 schools in New Hampshire.