Students study in Edith Garland Dupre Library on the UL Lafayette campus during the fall 2020 semester. (Photo: Doug Dugas/University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

There have been about 4,300 positive cases of COVID-19 reported at college campuses across the state, according to a running dashboard from the Louisiana Department of Health.

The department worked closely with the Louisiana Board of Regents and institutions of higher education to develop the reporting process that began in October, according to the online database.

There is no national tracking of cases among students and staff returning to schools, whether in K-12 or higher education, and efforts to do so rely solely on self-reporting at the school and individual levels, which has its limitations. 

“Anytime you have data self-reported there’s going to be limitations,” University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson said. “But we do now have a much better understanding of the prevalence of the virus on our campuses.”

The statewide dashboard includes data for 42 private and public institutions across the state, including community colleges and medical schools, and for students as well as faculty and staff. It is updated weekly. 

“Sharing facility-level information is not standard public health practice, but we made an exception here at the request of the Board of Regents,” according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

The data are entered by each university and submitted directly to the state, Henderson said, and like others across the country they are discovering it’s not simple or easy to track the spread of COVID-19.

More: You can see how many students, faculty have tested positive for COVID-19 at UL Lafayette

Tracking efforts also are challenged due to privacy concerns. A Sept. 1 emergency order by State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry requires schools to report “all known or suspected positive COVID-19 cases” among students and staff to the Louisiana Department of Health to feed into this statewide dashboard of cases at colleges and universities.

“We work closely with the institutions to get information that assists with contact tracing,” said Kevin Litten, communications strategist with the state Department of Health. “The institutions work with students and staff to obtain information and that is reported to LDH.” 

Cases are divided into categories like faculty or student, on-campus or virtual student or employee, and so on. “On-campus” refers to those living, taking classes or working on campus, not only residents.

Not all institutions track cases among students attending virtual classes or faculty working virtually. When there is no information available, the corresponding field is blank, according to the dashboard.

The UL System, which serves more than 90,000 students, has reported more than 1,200 positive cases among students across its nine campuses. The Louisiana State University System figure is close behind at 1,160 over six campuses.

“This just gives us more information to inform our practices,” Henderson said. “We know we’ve got to keep up with the mitigation efforts … physical