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Olathe Teacher Creates National 'Outlet For Facts' To Track Schools' Coronavirus Cases

Alisha Morris, a theater teacher at Olathe West High School, is pictured in this photo illustration in front of the database she began to help track schools' response and reopening during the pandemic.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Alisha Morris, a theater teacher at Olathe West High School, is pictured in this photo illustration in front of the database she began to help track schools' response and reopening during the pandemic.

The database, now run by the National Education Association (NEA), has served as an outlet for teachers to report cases in districts refusing to publicize them.

It was early August, and Olathe West high school teacher Alisha Morris was curious: What was happening at the schools reopening across the country amid a surge in COVID-19 cases?

Morris did some digging and found articles on coronavirus outbreaks in schools nationwide. But when she searched for a database tracking these cases, she was surprised to find nothing.

“I went to go look for that information in one place myself, but I couldn’t find it anywhere,” says Morris. “Furthermore, I saw that states were deliberately saying that they aren’t going to be tracking these cases.”

Undeterred, Morris started her own database for tracking these cases. She’d search the keywords “school” and “positive” on Google, bringing up a “barrage” of articles on cases she’d then log into a spreadsheet.

Tracking cases in schools across the country may sound like a daunting task for one person, but Morris says it was unbelievably simple.

“It wasn’t difficult, it was just time consuming,” says Morris. “The information is public, it is out there, all I did was put it in one place.”

Morris shared the database with teacher groups on Facebook, as well as her own district. The feedback from her colleagues was immediate: more people needed to see this.

The database then went viral across social media, getting shared by media outlets and receiving thousands of views.

Morris soon began receiving hundreds of articles a day on new cases to log, and she eventually had a team of 65 volunteers across the country helping her. She says she knew just one of them personally.

While teachers were thankful for her work, Morris says they were disappointed she had to be the one doing it.

“A lot of the dialogue was around how sad it was it had to come from someone like me rather than from federal or state authorities," Morris says. "People kept asking ‘Why do you have to keep track of this? Why isn’t someone else doing this?’”

The database has since been handed over to the National Education Association (NEA), which used it as the basis for its tracker of cases in public K-12 schools.

Although the database quickly grew into a now nationally supported project, Morris was nervous to share it with her colleagues at first.

“[COVID-19] has become so polarized,” says Morris. "I’m sure there are some people who are unhappy with the work that I’m doing, but I’m just trying to provide an outlet for facts.”

Numerous teachers have submitted cases to Morris anonymously, fearing backlash from their school districts that refused to publicize them to the media.

Without any news coverage, Morris says teachers would send her screenshots and emails of conversations on these cases in their districts. These were logged as unverified cases until any another outlet could back them up.

While the database is now documenting thousands of school COVID-19 cases across the country, Morris says it’s still just the “tip of the iceberg.”

“For as many cases as I log, there are at least fives times more cases that aren’t being reported," Morris says.

The database comes at a critical time for Kansas City in containing the spread of COVID-19 as schools reopen. On Wednesday, top hospital doctors warned that the metro is on the verge of uncontrolled coronavirus spread and becoming the next major U.S. hotspot.

Both Kansas and Missouri are currently regarded as “red zones” by the White House Coronavirus Task Force with positivity rates of over 10%.

“If we don’t exercise what we’ve heard today, we won’t be able to keep our schools open,” says Kenny Southwick, executive director of Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City. “And we’ll find ourselves in the situation that we were in last spring.”

Morris is relieved the project is now in the hands of the NEA and hopes it maintains the community driven aspect that made it so popular.

“I hope people can submit their own cases, whether they’re verified or not, and have an outlet to put that information there if their own local places wont," Morris says.

Or, as she says on the sign-off to her now left-behind database:

"Keep fightin' the good fight."

Lucas Cuni-Mertz is a news intern at KCUR 89.3.
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