MIAMI—Ever since she got fired from her job with the Florida Department of Health, Rebekah Jones refuses to stop gathering data on coronavirus cases and sharing it with the public. In the past four months, the 31-year-old architect of the state government’s COVID-19 dashboard built her own version of that product as a counterweight for data dissemination, emerging as a consistent and vociferous critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic.
Now Jones is taking on the arduous task of tracking coronavirus cases inside schools and colleges across the country. The plan is to compile that data into a new dashboard she hopes will help everyone from parents to students to school board members to health officials wrap their heads around tough choices that have already shown signs of disaster.
“I started building it more than two weeks ago,” Jones told The Daily Beast. “It’s called the COVID Monitor. I want to make the data available to epidemiologists, researchers, school districts, and even governments. It’s always been my mission to give people the information they need to make informed decisions.”
That sense of mission put Jones on a collision course with the governor and her health department bosses as Florida officials moved to relax COVID-19 restrictions in late spring. For his part, in May, shortly after her dismissal as a geographic information systems analyst, DeSantis said Jones’ ouster was the result of her repeated insubordination—as opposed to her being some kind of whistleblower.
“What she was doing is she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data,” DeSantis said during a press briefing featuring Vice President Mike Pence. “So she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors.”
But last month, Jones filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations that alleges the health department fired her as retaliation for her refusal to manipulate data to support the governor’s push to reopen the state. Along the way, Jones has become an unofficial COVID-19 watchdog by investigating tips from school employees fearful of returning to work and sharing her findings with her growing legion of 60,000-plus followers on Twitter.
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If past is prologue, DeSantis is in for a rough ride: Jones accused the governor of destroying the people’s trust in the state health department when he tried to attack her credibility. Spokespersons for DeSantis and Florida Health did not respond to email messages seeking comment.
But the COVID Monitor is about making sure people get reliable information nationwide and less about her rift with her ex-employer, Jones said. Currently, there is no official national dashboard tracking COVID-19 cases in schools, though some individual state health departments and county school districts are compiling daily and weekly reports on the number of students and staff that are either presumed positive or have been placed in quarantine for coming into contact with a person who is.
“People have a right to this data so they can make informed decisions about their lives,” Jones said. “This is a pandemic, not a political dog and pony show. I have the skills and capacity to provide that critical information, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
For instance, on Aug. 1, Jones fired off a tweet about a student and a pregnant teacher at Northwood Elementary School in the Panhandle city of Crestview who had tested positive. Jones also alleged that the teacher’s colleagues believed they were not allowed to speak up. In a follow-up tweet, Jones wrote, “teachers told me they worry about the lack of protections in place and a school seeking to hide cases.”
During her phone interview with The Daily Beast, Jones doubled down on her claims. “A teacher there tested positive and the other teachers were told not to tell anybody,” Jones said. “I contacted the principal directly, who said all protocols were followed. So I had this story about a school that wasn’t publicly disclosing coronavirus cases.”
Donna Goode, Northwood’s principal, referred The Daily Beast to Steve Horton, assistant superintendent for public schools in Okaloosa County, where the elementary school is located. Horton did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
Jones’ initial tweet garnered more than 4,600 retweets, more than 9,000 likes and 189 comments, including tips about other school systems not disclosing coronavirus cases. “Once that tweet was published, I was flooded with calls and messages from teachers, parents and administrators from all over the country,” Jones said. “I started an online secure form for people to report anonymously with as much information as they could provide.”
Jones was not willing to connect The Daily Beast with any of her tipsters, but she showed this reporter excerpts from a few of the tips she received about schools in Florida, Georgia, and Nevada.
For instance, a middle school in Georgia was allegedly closed for two days during a pre-planning week so the building could be disinfected because an employee tested positive. But the tipster claimed no one told the parents what happened and everyone who came in contact with the infected person had to return to work. Another tipster alleged that a teacher at a Florida elementary school had tested positive and was still on the job.
To build the website, Jones said she partnered with a financial literacy nonprofit company called Finmango, which was providing her with a team of coders and researchers to compile the schools data.
As of Sunday evening, Jones had gathered and uploaded raw data to the COVID Monitor showing at least one coronavirus case in 1,348 schools and colleges, a majority of which were in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. The website claimed to have verified that across the U.S., a total of 982 students and 313 staffers at 152 schools had tested positive, while another 5,193 were in quarantine.
Jones said the tallies were compiled from school districts that self-report cases, press releases and public statements from school and health officials about new cases, and breaking news stories, in addition to the anonymous tips. Verifying the cases requires contacting local school districts and state health department offices in each state to run the numbers by them, Jones added.
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It should be noted that some of the data on the website doesn’t line up with publicly available information. For instance, the COVID Monitor’s Mississippi stats showed 60 schools having cases, 167 positive students, 39 positive staffers and 1,856 people in quarantine. At a press conference last week, Mississippi Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said 199 students and 245 teachers had tested positive, while another 2,624 people had been placed in quarantine.
Jones said the COVID Monitor’s Mississippi statistics were based on information gleaned from the state’s health department website. “Every week, they produce an image of a table that has every single school, how many positive students and staff, and how many are in quarantine,” she said. “That kind of information is incredibly useful.”
Jones said the link to the health department’s table has been temporarily taken down due to technical issues. But data was available by each district, and she provided a link to a page on the Jackson County School District’s website as an example. The page shows a table breaking down the number of weekly coronavirus cases at 14 schools since Aug.7. An operator for the Mississippi Health Department said a spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
“Mississippi has a pretty robust system for case reporting in schools,” she said. “Each school has to report each week how many positive cases they are aware of. I think they’re still sorting out how to best show that information.”
The COVID Monitor also features a map pinpointing schools and colleges that have positive cases and the ability to scroll through individual schools to see how many positive cases each one has. “This is something that is sorely needed,” Jones said. “Each state has different rules about how much information is released to the public. There is no uniformity.”
As part of the endeavor, Jones said her organization, Florida COVID Action, and Finmango were also collaborating with the Google COVID-19 Open Data Project in developing the school dashboard. “It’s data mining for all kinds of things that are very much buried by schools and counties,” she said. “We will go through every school resource, every single day, and make sure it’s accurate.”
Google spokeswoman Kathryn Watson disputed Jones’ characterization of the company’s role, indicating that Google was only providing Florida COVID Action and Finmango free access and free queries to a hosted repository of datasets that “aid researchers, data scientists, and analysts in the effort to combat COVID-19.”
“So while they have access to some of the tools, there is no partnership in place in building a dashboard,” Watson told The Daily Beast. “By no means does Google Cloud have any access to this data. We are merely the cloud platform helping to host their research.”
At least one school system has also challenged Jones’ assertions that it is not being transparent. On Aug. 19, she tweeted that the COVID Monitor had documented coronavirus cases that the schools, in Martin County, Florida—where DeSantis famously joined a superintendent in comparing reopening to a Navy SEAL mission—were allegedly not disclosing.
The district’s official Twitter account responded that Martin County Public Schools doesn’t generate or maintain public health records, but that it informs the public in real time about the number of students and employees in quarantine. The district also suggested Jones seek coronavirus case data directly from the Martin County office of the state health department.
Jones said she spoke to a district official, who told her they were trying to be as transparent as possible, but that Martin County Public Schools cannot release information on individual cases because of privacy laws.
Martin County Public Schools spokeswoman Jennifer DeShazo did not comment specifically about Jones’ assertions, but told The Daily Beast in a statement that the district had released and continues to disclose every instance of students and employees being placed in quarantine, which is based on an individual testing positive or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
The state’s health department is the agency responsible for collecting, maintaining, and distributing information about specific cases, DeShazo added. A spokesperson for the Martin County office of Florida’s Health Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jones said she was not looking to have an adversarial relationship with school districts, even if she does have a history of beefing with DeSantis. “I want to know if any of the data is incorrect,” she said. “I am sure schools are so overwhelmed that cataloguing is difficult. Getting them to participate in this process is so paramount to what we are doing.”
As Jones works on tightening up her data collecting, some parents in her own state welcomed the project. Among them was Damaris Allen, a 42-year-old mom from Hillsborough County, which has been locked in a battle with the DeSantis administration over just how quickly it should reopen schools.
“There is a lot of suppression of data that is very concerning to me as a parent,” Allen told The Daily Beast. “I think it would be incredibly helpful to have a resource that lets me compare what is happening in schools in other counties. I like to make my decisions based on data and facts.”
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