In absence of government data, Montreal father creates website to track schools with cases of COVID-19

The Quebec government hasn't said whether it will start updating the public on COVID-19 cases in schools -- but some citizens don’t seem willing to wait.

A Montreal father who started a new crowd-sourced website meant to track school COVID-19 cases says it’s already garnered more than 100,000 page views.

By August, “I concluded we were going towards a second wave and our children would be in an experiment,” Olivier Drouin told CTV News. 

“I wanted to capture the data at the source and make it available to all parents [and] teachers, for them to make informed decisions about back-to-school.”

Last week, as French-language schools reopened, he launched a homemade site called Covid Ecoles Quebec that allows the public to submit reports of coronavirus cases at schools across the province.

It provides a list, and a map, showing the cases Drouin has been able to confirm to his standards after his own basic verification process.

Of course, it’s not an exhaustive list, and he says if the government started releasing its own numbers, he’d stop collecting his—but after losing some trust in official numbers, he’d want to check first that they were doing a good job, he said in an email.

Drouin is vice-president of a technology company that provides high-tech human resources software. He lives in Montreal and has two daughters, one 13 and one 15, he said.

His site so far has published the names of 33 schools with at least one COVID-19 case each. Aside from the skyrocketing page views, Drouin said he’s gotten “hundreds of submissions” in the last week from parents and others.

“Not all are published,” he said, as sometimes “information is missing” or, in many cases, he gets duplicate reports for the same case.

Aside from the fact that it’s crowd-sourced, there are some important caveats to keep in mind for anyone looking at his site: for one thing, he doesn’t try to count the number of cases, but the number of schools, he said.

If he can confirm, to his standards, one case linked to a school, the school goes on the list. The government, meanwhile, counts an outbreak as two or more cases.

As for verification, the “easiest way to verify is with a copy of the letter schools send to all parents when a case occurs, as this is now mandatory across Quebec,” he said.

If he doesn’t have this, he said, “I look for media coverage.” Some of the schools listed on his website have a link to a news article.

The website also has a map showing where the affected schools are. These come with another caveat: at first glance, the map seems to show huge outbreaks, with dozens of numbers attached to the pinpoint for each school. 

But those big numbers are not meant to show the number of cases, he said. They’re chronological to when he entered them, so a pinpoint showing “32,” for example, means it was the 32nd school he found, not that there are 32 cases there.

Drouin said his frustration with the government’s handling of the pandemic, and especially its transparency around data, had been growing for months before he thought of crowd-sourcing data.

“In particular, when schools reopened in May outside Montreal,” he said, “the government claimed a big success—however, no data was available to measure that.”

Quebecers only learned later that there were 41 cases linked to schools, he said. (That news was announced about two to three weeks after schools reopened.)

He believes that others have grown distrusting, too, due to a combination of government choices and data errors.

“Because the government fails to make this data available and accessible, it lacks transparency,” he said. 

“People don’t trust the numbers reported every day, as there have been so many data reporting issues,” he added, referencing the infamous fax machines used to collect infection reports, and the data that has been reported as misplaced or contaminated at various points. 

Drouin said he’s not against kids going back to school, but he wanted more safety measures to be taken, including shrinking class sizes, improving ventilation, mandating masks in classes and giving more people the option of remote learning.

The Quebec government hasn’t said whether it’s even considering releasing data on COVID-19 cases at schools. 

So far, the outbreaks that have been made public—including one involving 81 people at a Quebec City school and a Deux-Montagnes outbreak that has 20 teachers in quarantine—have been largely up to the media to confirm, with the cooperation of the schools and regional health authorities.

Drouin said he’d like it if the province did begin releasing routine data on schools.

“Based on the quality, accessibility of the data they would produce, yes, I would [shut my site down],” he said. “I have a day job.”

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