Opinion: Should schools scale back as COVID-19 cases rise? Decision making is difficult with the current way data is being reported and analyzed.

Students return to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic at Apache Junction High School in Apache Junction on Oct. 12, 2020. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)

Our family decisions on how to deal with COVID-19 had been easy until in-person instruction resumed in October.

Until then, online school was the only path. That agreed with the data, or at least did not contradict it.

Now, an online learning option is technically available, but it offers no honors and few elective courses, making 60% of our boys’ classes unavailable online.

School administrators also have communicated metrics for when in-person learning would and would not be allowed going forward.

But one thing this pandemic has taught me is that most people have difficulty understanding how to collect, interpret and apply data to decision making.

The metrics offer a skewed picture

Though state and county metrics are reported weekly, we are not seeing data for that week. Because the metrics rely on what was happening two or more weeks ago, the direction the data is moving – its trend – must also be considered along with the actual metrics.

Decision making is difficult with the current way data is being reported and analyzed.

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Our school district says in-person learning will be limited when our community sees more than 50 infections for every 100,000 people in our population.

Statewide, the infection rate is 67. Maricopa County is at 70. Every area adjacent to ours is above 50 and has seen rates of infection grow for several weeks in a row.

Yet this week, our area is reported at 19 per 100,000 and growing … as of two weeks ago. What have we grown to in that time?

Because no new precautions are being applied, and previous precautions are being removed, the evidence suggests the growth of infections will continue.

A lack of timely data hurts us

Considering the trend of infections is rising sharply each week in our area, all the surrounding areas are exceeding our own school district’s limits, and the data guiding districts is weeks old, at what point do you look at the trend and predict our community has exceeded, or is soon to exceed, the established limits to provide in person instruction?

There is no reason to believe the trend of increasing infections will stop or change direction without intervention, so when we see this trend, we should consider taking action to redirect it, even though the limits themselves have not been explicitly exceeded in the data from weeks past.

All this talk of data is further complicated by recent events, including the quarantine of hundreds of students at nearby high schools. It was an open secret that many families had COVID-like symptoms and even verified infections, yet they chose not to disclose them while continuing to send their students to in-person classes and school events because they wanted to avoid being stigmatized.

With research pointing to 50% of infections being transmitted by infected people who have no symptoms, heading off trends as early as possible becomes even more important as our country sees its third and largest spike in daily COVID-19 infections in eight months.

The thing that hurts me most as a health care data professional is a lack of data. We cannot know what we do not measure and, unfortunately, multiple factors including practicality, privacy and politics have stopped the flow of information from our communities to our decision makers.

The lack of timely, complete data – combined with inexperience in making data-driven decisions – has constrained many communities, including ours, placing us at a disadvantage. After all, all politics are local, and apparently, so are all pandemics.

Jason Wreath and his family live in Fountain Hills. Jason is a 25-year veteran entrepreneur in health care and has operated across the spectrum from founding his own businesses to serving as an executive with publicly traded companies.

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