Concerns about Iowa’s COVID-19 data prompt grassroots school outbreak tracker

The Iowa COVID-19 Tracker is a grassroots effort to share data on the virus in Iowa's schools. (Screen shot from iowacovid19tracker.org)

When Sara Anne Willette first learned about the COVID-19 outbreak in China, she was immediately on alert.

Willette, who is immunocompromised with common variable immune deficiency, said she was prepared to go into isolation when the virus went beyond international borders.

She had this conversation with her husband in February. 

Little did Willette know that by March, the virus would have already spread across Iowa’s state lines.

But with her heavy math background and detailed interest in spreadsheets, she decided to put her concerns about the virus and her passion for analytics into use by poring over the state’s COVID-19 data for public use.

Thus, the “Iowa COVID-19 tracker” was born.

“I taught math to high schoolers and college kids as a private educator,” Willette said. “I love doing graphs. It’s one of my calming activities.

Sara Willette runs Iowa COVID-19 tracker, which offers a tool showing positive cases in Iowa school districts and buildings. (Photo submitted by Sara Willette)

Now Willette, along with the Iowa State Education Association, is helping Iowa families track COVID-19 cases at Iowa school districts and buildings in an attempt to help people get an accurate understanding of outbreaks in their local areas.

The new school tracking tool on Willette’s site allows families to self-report COVID-19 cases within their family or community to help others get a better grasp on the extent of positive cases.

Concerns about the accuracy of Iowa’s data

In July, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that school districts will need to hold 50% of classes in person, unless their county reaches a 15% infection rate and 10% of students are reported absent.

If a county reaches a 15% infection rate, a school district is allowed to ask the Iowa Department of Education for a two-week waiver to move classes 100% online.

Mike Beranek, president of the statewide teacher’s union, said there have been concerns from families and educators about the accuracy of the state’s COVID-19 reporting. That was particularly true after Reynolds announced there was a known glitch in the state’s medical reporting tool that inaccurately backdated COVID-19 test results.

“The data provided by the state has had numerous flaws,” Beranek said. “I don’t believe schools were getting all of the information they needed to make informed decisions and this is just a great way for us to provide that on the statewide level.”

Willette, who spends at least 10 hours a day updating her website and analyzing COVID-19 numbers, said she saw backdating changes on the state’s website as recently as Aug. 29.

“Every single one of us needs to know what the current state of our pandemic looks like,” Willette said.

As Iowa families and educators make decisions on how the rest of the fall should look, Beranek said it’s imperative accurate COVID-19 numbers and information about outbreaks is publicly available.

Some school districts have announced they don’t plan on disclosing positive cases to families and instead will only share numbers with the state public health department, Beranek said. This places an impetus on the community to self-report if their kids test positive for COVID-19.

“They are unable in many locations to maintain a distance of six feet,” Beranek said. “In order to make informed decisions, people need to know the correct numbers and be able to move forward with the appropriate education setting for students.”

COVID-19 tracking website

For now, the majority of the information in Willette’s school tracker comes from official notifications from school districts themselves. She’s also collected information from concerned parents who contact her and she said there’s an anonymous reporting tool on the site where people can self-report COVID-19 cases.

She follows up and confirms submitted cases with school districts that haven’t been publicly reported, unless it was submitted by an educator or school employee. People are able to use the embedded Google Map to see where confirmed outbreaks have occurred. There is also a spreadsheet that provides dates of reported positive cases and the school districts where they occurred.

Willette said she’s noticed COVID-19 spreading in rural communities at a higher rate than before. While more urban areas such as Polk, Story, Johnson, Black Hawk and Linn counties have dealt with high case counts for months, smaller areas like Plymouth County are enduring growing virus rates more recently as well.

“They all need to be pulling together and try to slow it as much as possible,” Willette said.

As news comes out about quarantined classrooms and school buildings, Beranek said their focus is on making case counts transparent for educators and families.

ISEA and the Iowa City school district have sued the state over their belief that the governor is violating Iowa Code by requiring 50% of classes to be held in person and deciding when school can go 100% online.

“The more information is available, the better decisions are made,” Beranek said.