Olathe NEA member Alisha Morris creates spreadsheet to track school-related COVID-19 cases, garners national attention

“I was seeing all these schools experiencing cases. I went searching for that information and couldn’t find it anywhere. I’ve always been kind of a spreadsheet nerd.”

Alisha Morris, Olathe NEA member and Olathe West High School theatre instructor
Alisha Morris, Olathe NEA member

Reading and hearing media accounts of the COVID-19 virus reported across the U.S. education system  this past spring and summer, Olathe NEA member Alisha Morris had an idea: Create a way for her fellow educators to see – in one central, transparent place – where the instances of the novel coronavirus were reported in each of the 50 states’ schools.    

“I was seeing all these schools experiencing cases,” said Morris, a theatre instructor for Olathe West High School. “I went searching for that information and couldn’t find it anywhere. I’ve always been kind of a spreadsheet nerd. I thought it would be a productive use of my time, waiting for school to start.”

Morris said she started entering the COVID-19 school data from news and social media accounts into a Google spreadsheet, separated by state, and then shared the information with her Olathe USD 233 board of education and on the Facebook walls of Kansas’ and other states’ educator groups.

Then the local and national media found out about Morris’ project and before long, she said she was interviewed by not only Kansas City television reporters but also by The Washington Post, Good Morning America, National Public Radio and The CBS Evening News.  

“It’s very overwhelming,” Morris said in describing the national exposure she’s received, “particularly because I really wasn’t looking for this to happen. I shared it with some people and it just exploded. They were all shocked to see what was on the spreadsheet. People obviously want this information.”

The map of where the number of school-related COVID-19 cases as tracked by Alisha Morris’ spreadsheet as of Aug. 21, 2020

Leigh Anne Rogers, president of Olathe NEA, said Morris is “a dedicated educator that cares about student and staff safety.”

“With schools reopening across the country, Alisha found a way to house data and trends about COVID-19 that are specific to schools and educational systems,” she said. “We are proud of the work our Olathe NEA educator is doing.”

Once the news of her spreadsheet started garnering more attention, Morris said “a bunch of people” began sending her links to reports of school-related coronavirus cases. She said a small army made up of about 50 current and retired teachers and other people across the country have volunteered to help enter the news, social media and other verified reports.

“All of a sudden I was getting hundreds of submissions,” she said. “Then I started asking for help from other teachers across the country. I would assign them to their home state. It very quickly grew to over 700 schools put into the spreadsheet.”

A screenshot of the reported number of COVID-19 school-related cases by state according to Alisha Morris’ spreadsheet tracker as of Aug. 21, 2020

One such teacher who jumped in to help Morris was Alaina Post, Kentucky Education Association member and foreign language instructor at Walton-Verona High School in Walton, Kentucky.

“I felt an immediate connection to Alisha because she seemed to have the same goals I had when I started my (Facebook) group (Kentucky Teachers/Staff for a Safe Return),” she said. “We both felt the need to amplify teacher voices and show through data that it was dangerous to reopen schools under the current circumstances.”

Jennifer Johnson, a member of Education Minnesota and a learning specialist at Normandale Elementary and Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota, said she, too, became aware of the COVID-19 tracker when Morris posted it on her state’s educator Facebook group, “Teaching in COVID-19” that has more than 130,000 members. She said as an interventionist, she knows how labor-intensive the gathering and entering of data can be.

“I instantly offered my support and aid knowing that this work is important work that someone should be doing, if not at the state or federal level then someone else,” Johnson said. “It’s disappointing that it falls upon a cadre of teachers to fill this role, especially considering that data tracking of this nature can only be meant for schools to make sound decisions in which to preserve the safety of our nation’s children, teachers, and other school support staff.”

Despite the thousands of submissions that are housed in the COVID-19 tracker, Post believes the number of school-related cases is getting underreported either by the school districts or county health departments or both.

“I think that this exacerbates the divide between teachers and staff and community members and parents because the community is not totally aware of how bad the situation is so they think it is safe to send their kids back into the buildings,” she said.

Morris said if a report of COVID-19 cases that can’t be confirmed but is in the public domain, it will be tagged as “NO ARTICLE PROOF.” She said her previous experience as a speech and debate coach reinforced her belief in having sourced entries whenever possible.

Alisha Morris when she was interviewed by KSHB-TV, Kansas City

“The lesson learned from this is that people really want this information and they want to see it in one place,” Morris said. “(They) want to see this information in a transparent way.”

The success of the spreadsheet has also garnered the National Education Association’s attention. Morris since she needs to begin devoting her full attention to her teaching duties, NEA will soon integrate it into their digital content.

“They created a website and they’re going to take over the operation,” she said.