D.C. officials released data this week reportedly showing that a significant number of the city’s coronavirus outbreaks are connected to school buildings and day cares, but the data contains many caveats that indicate the cases being counted did not originate in classrooms.

Still, the troubling outbreak numbers — the first time the city released detailed information about the location of outbreaks in the District — landed amid the contentious debate over whether to reopen schools. It arrived as U.S. case counts soar, and when limited data suggest that there is little virus transmission inside schools. That has led some health officials to argue that schools, particularly elementary schools, can reopen when safeguards are in place.

On social media, teachers and residents shared the data, saying it was evidence that it is risky to reopen schools and that schools are contributing to the spread of the virus.

The city is counting an outbreak as any location that has two or more cases in a 14-day span between Aug. 1 and Nov. 26. But the two cases do not need to be linked to qualify as an outbreak. And a case reported at a school or child-care facility does not mean that the person contracted the virus at that location. Schools are reporting cases of staff members who are coming into school buildings even if there are no children on site.

D.C. officials acknowledged Tuesday that they are not seeing community spread within school buildings.

Leaders in early childhood care say the data was misleading, and fear that it could dissuade families from sending young children to facilities that have the recommended safeguards in place. Between Aug. 1 and Nov. 26, the city reported 15 outbreaks linked to day cares, or nearly 14 percent of all city outbreaks during that time.

There are more than 300 child-care facilities operating in the city. The data does not show how many incidents there have been when cases spread at day-care facilities. There were 19 outbreaks connected to schools during this time period, accounting for more than 17 percent of the city’s outbreaks.

By comparison, the data also showed 15 outbreaks connected to restaurants. But because linking cases to restaurants requires extensive contact tracing — an effort that has been largely unsuccessful in the District because people are not answering contact tracers’ questions — restaurant outbreaks are probably undercounted in the city data. Day cares are required to report every coronavirus case linked to parents, staff and children affiliated with a facility, according to Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Action for Children, an advocacy organization. The same is true for schools.

“It’s just not clear,” Perry said. “Anyone reading the data might think that child care is the original source of exposure as opposed to it being the case where it was reported. It may seem like a nuance, but it is actually significant.” 

Adding to the confusion, the city does not break down the school outbreak data by traditional public, public charter or private school. Many states and jurisdictions, including Maryland, list coronavirus cases by individual school. Some D.C. public schools have on-site activities for students, and more than 30 elementary campuses in November began having students come to classrooms to participate in virtual learning under the supervision of nonteaching staff. The city still has not reached agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union on how to reopen schools but says it plans to push forward with a more expansive reopening in February even if the union is not on board.

The vast majority of D.C. students are doing online learning, and it is unclear how many of the outbreaks are connected to schools that have no children in the buildings. Many private schools and charter schools — which are publicly funded and privately operated — have reopened this academic year, but it is not known how many of the outbreaks are traced to each of these sectors.

The city reports virus data for the public school system, but it does not list which schools the cases are connected to or how many of the staff cases are linked to schools that are not in session. Since Nov. 25, one student and 12 staff members have reported positive cases. School officials say one of the 12 staff cases occurred in a building where students were in classrooms participating in virtual learning. The student who tested positive attended an outdoor program at an elementary school where participants maintained their distance and wore masks.

John Falcicchio, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s chief of staff, said that the city is not breaking down school data any further because it fears that naming schools could make people feel ostracized, potentially discouraging them from reporting cases.

“That’s why we give you a sense of what we’re seeing in the data but don’t give you specifics, in order not to make people feel like they’re being singled out,” Falcicchio said.

D.C. officials say they host regular calls with school and child-care leaders so they can share what mitigation efforts are working and regularly update their guidance on what safety protocols education facilities should have in place.

Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.