COVID dashboards: Best practices advice from a national COVID database creator

Many school districts are updating their communities on COVID case information via an easy-to-read dashboard. Here's what these communication tools should include—and what superintendents surveyed by DA report about their dashboard development and features.
Rebekah Jones, co-creator of The COVID Monitor
Rebekah Jones, co-creator of The COVID Monitor

It’s ironic that Rebekah Jones co-founded The COVID Monitor, a national database for COVID-19 case data in K12 schools, because she doesn’t believe school districts should have to be compiling and reporting on COVID cases. “The strain on schools is so great right now that asking them to do one more thing—which may seem like a little thing on the outside but is not—is so much of a burden,” says Jones, a scientist whose work before spring 2020 focused on the intersection of people and the environment, particularly related to hurricanes and climate change and using geospatial science as a tool. Building a dashboard is time-consuming and requires a level of expertise, she adds. Plus, it requires developing a data collection system with all the schools.

Jones’ COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, built while working at the Florida Department of Health, received national praise. Two months later (after she was fired for what she says was her refusal to alter the state’s COVID data amid pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office), she created The COVID Monitor. The effort’s aim: track cases in every school district in the U.S.  Jones, founder of the social benefits corporation Florida COVID Action, partnered with FinMango, a nonprofit focused on using data to support public and financial health, on that project. They’re assisted by a Google employee (who serves as advisor and engineer in helping to maintain the initiative’s data systems), plus several volunteers.

The work involves culling data from state reporting systems broken down by district, plus finding districts that are independently reporting in states that are not. Jones recently spent two whole days looking up data by individual district in a Midwest state with no reporting system. Many districts still have no dashboard or other official way of reporting COVID case data.

In other cases, a system is in place but it’s “completely useless and confusing,” she says. “You don’t know if it’s active or cumulative, or if cases are students or staff, or how long the district has been reporting.”

Then there are more exemplary systems, “doing all the things you would want to see,” Jones says.

Desirable dashboard details

Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida is one district Jones points to as a model. Its dashboard highlights the total cases reported, date last refreshed, a chart with cases per day that’s broken into employee and student cases, and a list of each school with numbers of employee and student cases listed. Visitors can also select a single region or school for a breakdown and chart, or select a previous date to view.

Infographic: How does your school district's COVID dashboard compare to others? Click on graphic to enlarge.
Infographic: How does your school district’s COVID dashboard compare to others? Click on graphic to view and enlarge.

While presentation can make a dashboard easier to read, a great dashboard can be simple in design. She points to the effort of Lake County Schools in Florida. “There are no bells and whistles, but the level of data and granularity they provide is the best in the state,” she says.

Jones wants first and foremost to see specific data types. She says breaking out by students and staff is important, with some districts further breaking out by teachers and other staff. Showing cases by school type is also key. “For high school, the case rate is twice as high as for students in elementary,” she says.

A DA survey of 186 superintendents found that 80% break out data by student and employee cases and 75% by individual schools. About six in 10 show data by level of school. (See infographic.)

School districts should also be including a cumulative count and noting new cases by day on their dashboards, says Jones. “If you’re doing active or current cases, there needs to be a definitely for that.” Sharing each school’s total enrollment on the dashboard is another best practice.

When reviewing a dashboard, Jones finds herself asking questions like “What am I looking at?” and “What does that mean?” often. In addition, the dashboards don’t always state how they receive data. When cases are first reported to a state system and districts must wait to hear from someone at the state level, there’s a lag time for dashboard updates—especially if the person who has COVID or a family member hasn’t self-reported directly to the school.

In her experience, school districts are generally including instructions or an FAQ. “Most are doing one or the other, but a lot are not doing either,” she says. “One has such bad data that I don’t report it.”

In the DA survey, 55% of superintendents said their dashboards have instructions or an FAQ.

Another factor to consider is whether the dashboard data can be downloaded. “If you’re making data public, you may as well make it accessible,” Jones says.

Making it visible is important, too. “It should be on the [district] home page plus on the COVID page,” advises Jones. Less than two-thirds of those surveyed by DA have placed the dashboard in either place.

Only 16% of survey respondents include community case data in their dashboards; 20% include information on how that data impacts school opening decisions. Salt Lake City School District is one example Jones points to. The district site’s COVID information includes a page on the community’s positive test rate and how it relates to decisions being made about a return to in-person learning.

Some districts are revisiting their dashboard design after its release to make tweaks or even overhauls. About one-quarter of superintendents in the DA survey have done so.

Is that worth the effort when there appears to be a light at the end of the COVID tunnel?

Jones thinks so. “These data systems can be used for all kinds of stuff,” she says. “You can monitor health trends like influenza cases or do something more robust about absenteeism tracking. Plus, it’s not like we’ll never be hit by anything else in the future. There are tons of information people would like to have about schools but they don’t.”

However, it’s not as if a dashboard is the only way to communicate about school data. One North Carolina district, says Jones, posts school case updates on its Facebook page. “Get people on board with reporting” is her advice for all districts. “Either you can have control over this narrative and be the authoritative voice, or you can let it be reduced to rumors and accusations about lack of transparency,” she says. “This is your chance to be accessible and say what’s going on.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”School district #COVID dashboard best practices: Break out by students and staff, and consider breaking out further out by teachers and other staff. Also show cases by school type. #k12 #pandemic #data” quote=”School district #COVID dashboard best practices: Break out by students and staff, and consider breaking out further out by teachers and other staff. Also show cases by school type. #k12 #pandemic #data”]

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