Louisiana’s college COVID-19 numbers show wide gap between on-campus and virtual students

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LSU Clock Tower (Photo by Julie O'Donoghue)

The COVID-19 dashboard run by the Louisiana Department of Health shows 1,558 confirmed cases among college students, faculty and staff and 523 cases of the disease in K-12 schools across the state.  As one might expect, that dashboard shows more cases among students and faculty who’ve attended classes in person than among those who’ve accessed classes virtually.

The promise of a dashboard was announced by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration after the state’s public universities provided various responses when asked what information they would share about infection rates and deaths of people on their campuses.  For example, Southern University reported in August that it had kept a running tally of cases since March 31 and the University of Louisiana – Lafayette said it was working to create a dashboard for its campus.  At the same time, officials at LSU, the University of New Orleans, Northwestern University and Nicholls State University said they planned to keep their numbers to themselves.

K-12 school districts also had inconsistent reporting plans. As of late August, there were no state reporting requirements if students, teachers or staff at a Louisiana public school tested positive for COVID-19.  At that point, the state was taking a mostly hands-off approach and leaving it up to the individual school districts to decide if they should release information about positive tests and who would receive those notifications.

The same week the Illuminator reported that not every university planned to report its numbers, Gov. Edwards said at a press conference: “We do believe there needs to be accurate data that is made public by the universities. We want people to have confidence in what we are doing. And what we do know is that if you are not sharing data — quickly and transparently — that undermines confidence.” 

State officials maintain that colleges and universities don’t have to report their numbers but are doing so voluntarily.  Meg Casper Sunstrom, deputy commissioner for strategic communication of the Louisiana Board of Regents, said Sept. 2, ”Higher education has willingly come to the table with LDH because we all value transparency and the health of our campus communities.” 

Also, at the beginning of September, the state health department issued an executive order requiring all schools (public or private) with students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade to the health department.

According to the state health department, 1,103 K-12 schools have signed up to report their numbers to the state. The 27 schools that didn’t report are in Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis parishes, all of which were hit hard by Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, on Aug. 27.

As for the colleges, 1,409 cases were from students “living or attending classes on-campus.”  There were 149 cases “among faculty and staff working on-campus,” 29 cases “among students exclusively attending virtual classes” and 16 cases “among faculty and staff working 100% virtually.”