An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

There is no federal system to track outbreaks at schools in the United States and states differ significantly on what they report.

Experts predicted COVID-19 would spread when schools reopened this fall. But several weeks into the new school year, it’s nearly impossible to tally how many new cases of the virus have popped up in schools. 

Even though the United States has been struggling to tamp down the coronavirus pandemic for months, there is no federal level tool to monitor coronavirus cases in schools. Even at the local level, tracking is uneven and often vastly incomplete. 

One independent monitor, called The Covid Monitor, reports a total of 12,766 COVID-19 cases so far this year. They compile their data through a combination of submissions from school districts, individual schools, news reports, and the public. 

And not every school district uses the same metrics for what they consider an “outbreak.” In North Carolina, for example, the state only reports clusters of five or more cases at a school. 

“The clusters are more so indicated there are kids who are spreading it amongst themselves at school versus bringing it in from other places,” said Kelly Haight to the New York Times. Haight is a spokeswoman for the state health department. There are six other states that report data this way. 

Some states withhold information entirely, while others are still planning to release data at a later date. Even within a state, different districts can withhold information on their active cases, citing privacy concerns. According to the New York Times, some states like Maine and Illinois are still “undecided” about the extent of the reporting they would do, if any. 

This uneven and often unreliable tracking of the virus among K-12 students is undercut even further after President Trump’s repeated claims that children are less likely to experience less severe cases of COVID-19. 

Adding to this challenge is that fact that no vaccine trials to fight COVID-19 in children have been started yet. While adult vaccines are in the final stages of clinical trials, the dosage amounts and severity of side effects can differ between children and adults.

That prompted Dr. Evan Anderson, a pediatrician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, to tell the New York Times that he is “pretty worried that we won’t have a vaccine available for kids by the start of next school year.” 

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump continues to spread misinformation about the coronavirus and young people. At a campaign rally on Monday Trump claimed that COVID-19 “affects virtually nobody” under the age of 18, which is incorrect and contradicts previous statements that the virus creates a risk for “plenty of young people.” 

Trump went on to claim that only older Americans with heart problems and other preexisting conditions need to be cautious about the virus. 

“It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems and other problems. That’s what it really affects,” he said. “In some states, thousands of people — nobody young. Below the age of 18, like, nobody. They have a strong immune system, who knows? Take your hat off to the young, because they have a hell of an immune system. But it affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing.”

Trump’s claims are in direct opposition to what he told Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward in an interview back in March. Woodward recently published multiple statements made by Trump where he admitted to downplaying the severity of the coronavirus in his book, “Rage”.

There is still a lot that doctors don’t know about how COVID-19 affects young people but there is growing consensus that people under 18 are still at risk of developing serious cases of the virus and play a major role in spreading it to others. Young people of color are also disproportionately affected and hospitalized because of  the virus.