How, when and by whom will the public be informed?
The grand experiment has begun around the United States of America. Kids are headed back into schools in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic for in-person instruction.
School districts, school board members and school superintendents around the nation no doubt have done their level best to create and implement plans that will minimize illness and death due to coronavirus and Covid-19, the deadly illness coronavirus can cause. They have been under tremendous pressure, political and otherwise, to get kids back into their buildings.
Let’s start there. No reasonable person wants any students, staff members, teachers or administrators to contract coronavirus or Covid-19.
However, despite their best efforts, there are a multitude of questions and unknowns about how this is going to go down.
For example: How effective will the planning turn out to be in the face of coronavirus and Covid-19?
Another question being raised around the country: When coronavirus cases are confirmed among students, staff, teachers and administrators, how, when and by whom will the public be informed?
As reported by The New York Times, some school districts are making a point of providing information directly to the public.
“As schools in parts of the country have reopened classrooms amid a still-raging pandemic, some districts have been open about coronavirus cases in their buildings. They send weekly — and in some cases, daily — reports to families and updating online dashboards with the latest positive test results and quarantine counts.”
Others are refusing, citing various privacy laws, rules and regulations.
In Citizens’ Best Interest
It is in the best interest of community members to be informed of coronavirus cases in local schools.
Since coronavirus will be carried by infected students, staff, teachers and administrators from schools and into their homes and communities, even if they don’t know they’re infected, there’s a compelling case to be made for informing the wider community, not of information specific to individuals that is protected by law, but general information and statistics. For example, if 10 or 20 cases are confirmed in Lincoln Elementary (any Lincoln Elementary in the country) in a given week, the people who live where Lincoln is located should be made aware as quickly as possible, meaning by the schools themselves.
The information will:
- Inform decisions by parents about whether to send their children to Lincoln in the following days or weeks.
- Help parents plan their work and childcare schedules for coming weeks because they’ll be able to assess the potential for a school outbreak that might necessitate a closure. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
- Let community members know they need to be extra vigilant about practicing the three coronavirus spread-stopping actions – mask wearing, physical distancing and hand washing – or perhaps even convince them to stay at home altogether.
The comments of Cheryl Honeycutt, mother of a Georgia student, and Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, as reported in The Times story, capture the compelling need:
“This is a danger to our community” Honeycutt said. “We’re safer if we know what’s going on.”
Said Jha, “You don’t scare people by telling them what’s going on. You scare them by hiding information.”
Yes, They Can
Districts that are electing not to share information mention adherence to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is somewhat misleading. While those laws define personal information and the conditions under which it can and cannot be released by various entities, government and otherwise, neither prohibits the release of generic, non-individual-specific information such as statistics related to the number of coronavirus or Covid-19 cases among students, staff, faculty and administrators. This is confirmed by both the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
If it were otherwise, states would not be able to release information about the number of cases and deaths in their jurisdictions, as we’ve seen them do on a daily basis throughout the pandemic.
In the words of North Dakota Department of Health Chief Communications Officer Nicole Peske, “It’s up to the school district, however they make that decision.” The decision could be made by the district’s superintendent or its school board, depending on the district, but either way, “It’s a local decision,” she said.
So Lincoln Elementary, regardless of which town or city it’s located in, is able to inform the public of confirmed coronavirus cases (barring specific state, county or local laws).
I reached out to the school districts in the Fargo (N.D.)-Moorhead (Minn.) Metropolitan Statistical Area, where I reside, to find out how they will be handling reporting.
Fargo Public Schools, Moorhead Area Public Schools and West Fargo Public Schools all informed me they will not be communicating cases to the community. Fargo and West Fargo will be reporting cases to Fargo Cass Public Health, which will report them to the state. It’s unclear how or if the public will be informed. School officials said that, while neither district is going to be proactive in informing the public of cases, as Cherokee County (Ga.) School District does, they will provide information upon request from citizens and news media.
Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi wrote in an email, “FPS is committed to being transparent and sharing any information we can (in accordance to FERPA, HIPPA and NDCC – North Dakota Century Code) and responding honestly and openly to any inquiries we may have. We also understand that in many cases, the information shared to parents or impacted staff may be passed on to others, including the media. We have no concerns with that, but our priority (in relation to other priorities when dealing with COVID-19 cases in our school) will not be to notify non-impacted community members.”
Moorhead’s media contact mentioned both FERPA and HIPAA, as well, and said Moorhead Area Public Schools will report cases to the Minnesota Department of Health. The Health Department has not yet responded to inquiries regarding if, how and when school- or school district-specific coronavirus infection statistics will be shared with affected communities.
How About Coronavirus in Our Communities?
It’s hard to imagine how overwhelming the truckload of tasks involved in planning and executing the reopening of facilities has been for school officials during this summer of 2020, not to mention the immense political pressure from both the left and the right on the “issue.” The school year will likely be even more challenging.s
Reporting coronavirus cases to the public is just one more thing.
As Gandhi wrote, “When FPS is notified (of a confirmed coronavirus case), our first priority will be focused on executing our developed protocols and notifying those that are directly impacted or might be a close contact.”
That’s as it should be.
Yet the rights and needs of the public should be somewhere on the list of priorities, too.
IV Words will be contacting the school districts in the FM Metro regularly to request coronavirus statistics. I urge you to contact your local officials to ask how and when they will report coronavirus cases. Urge them to figure out a way to inform your community regularly and in a timely manner.
Sending kids back into schools in the midst of a deadly global pandemic is still an experiment that has strong potential to impact not just students, staff, teachers and administrators, but you, me and our neighbors. It’s being paid for with our tax dollars, and that makes it our right to know how it’s working. Or not.
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Featured image by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press via The New York Times, The Upshot.
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