Park City School District unveils a new COVID data visualization tool, the brainchild of a theoretical physicist and a school nurse
A Cambridge-trained theoretical physicist and a school nurse struck up a collaboration to better track health data in schools to help the Park City School District preemptively fight the outbreaks of influenza and stomach bugs that can quickly spread through a student population.
This year, their data-tracking brainchild took on outsized importance amid the COVID-19 pandemic and they pushed to make their vision a reality as quickly as safely possible.
On Friday, the Park City School District unveiled a new data dashboard that resulted from that collaboration, a collection of brightly colored charts and graphs that endeavors to make the COVID-19 health situation in Park City schools easier for parents, students and the public to understand.
“I think that Park City is leading the way rather than relying on state counts and slower communication methods,” said Matthew Tunney, the physics PhD who is now a managing partner of the firm behind the new data dashboard, HealthAttend. “What they’re doing is being very active in being able to monitor and track something that’s extremely important.”
Each Park City school has a designated COVID contact person who reports data into the HealthAttend portal. The data includes COVID test results and the numbers of students who are out of school for COVID-related reasons.
With the new data tracker, Tunney explained that the district could be empowered to take action to control a disease outbreak armed with more data about how and where it is spreading.
Ultimately, he said, the goal is to keep students in school longer, which is good for teachers, students, parents and the community.
“One thing I’m really proud of is this information is ahead of (virtually) everyone else. Other districts are really relying on other people to provide information to make decisions,” Tunney said. “I’m really proud of having a tool that nurses and health personnel are actually using. That’s allowing really informed decisions to be made by (the Park City School District). I think that’s why it’s leading the way.”
The dashboard shows the number of positive tests per day, the total amount of active cases, a chart of the number of cases at each school and the number of students at each school who are missing in-person classes for COVID-related reasons.
As of Tuesday, the dashboard showed eight active COVID cases district-wide and 186 COVID-related absences. Before the dashboard, the district was using a Google spreadsheet that showed the number of active cases at each school and the expected date those students would return.
Tunney explained that there is a lag between when a person is tested and when the results come back, usually around three days. And he added that there is almost always a time difference between when a person feels symptoms and when a test result is returned. He said those discrepancies explain why positive test data is filled in after the fact – it is reflected on the spreadsheet on the date the test was taken, not the day the test was returned.
The data shown on the new dashboard does not include staff members who test positive, which Superintendent Jill Gildea said is because the schools’ COVID points of contact do not record that information. A positive test among staff members would count in the total number of active cases in a school, Gildea said, but that individual circumstances would be taken into account, like the source of exposure.
State guidelines advise districts to close a school to in-person classes when there are 15 confirmed cases or more in one school over a 14-day period, though Gildea said that number is a guideline rather than a regulation.
Tunney, who concentrated in nanophysics while earning a doctorate at Cambridge University, partnered with Shannon Corcoran, a registered nurse in the Park City School District, to found HealthAttend. He said the Kimball Junction-based business aims to spread its data-tracking health software around the country and that about 12 schools outside of the Park City School District are using the software.
Tunney added that the firm prioritizes data security and takes steps to ensure personally identifying material isn’t at risk of public exposure.
Corcoran was struck by the district’s response to a previous influenza outbreak, according to Gildea, who has been working with HealthAttend to establish the new data dashboard.
“(Corcoran) recognized that if we had the ability to centralize symptoms records when parents call their students in absent, we may be able to proactively inform the community of illness trends,” Gildea wrote in an email to The Park Record.
Gildea referenced a 2009 episode when the district decided to preventively close schools for three days to ward off a potential outbreak of Swine Flu.
“The data dashboard is a helpful resource for our community to see at a glance information on past and current absence trends related to COVID19,” Gildea wrote. “The more information we can provide to families as we all work together to navigate impacts of COVID-19, the better.”
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