COVID in the Classroom? Shhh. Some Schools Are Keeping It Quiet.

Eufemia Didonato

A public school in Brooklyn, Aug. 5, 2020. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times) On the first day of school in Camden County, Georgia, local Facebook groups were already buzzing with rumors that a teacher had tested positive for the coronavirus. The next day, a warning went out to school administrators: […]

A public school in Brooklyn, Aug. 5, 2020. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)
A public school in Brooklyn, Aug. 5, 2020. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

On the first day of school in Camden County, Georgia, local Facebook groups were already buzzing with rumors that a teacher had tested positive for the coronavirus. The next day, a warning went out to school administrators: Keep teachers quiet.

“Staff who test positive are not to notify any other staff members, parents of their students or any other person/entity that they may have exposed them,” wrote Jon Miller, the district’s deputy superintendent, in a confidential email Aug. 5.

In the weeks since, parents, students and teachers in the coastal community on the Florida border have heard by word-of-mouth of more positive cases linked to district schools. Some parents said they had been called by local officials and told that their children should quarantine.

But even as fears of an outbreak have grown, the district has refused to publicly confirm a single case, either to the local community or The New York Times.

“This is a danger to our community,” said Cheryl Honeycutt, mother of an 8-year-old Camden student. “We’re safer if we know what’s going on, but their pan answer is, ‘We can neither confirm or deny.’”

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.

But others districts have been silent, sometimes citing privacy concerns to withhold information, to the dismay of some anxious parents, concerned educators and public health experts trying to combat the pandemic.

“If schools don’t notify, it actually can make disease control more difficult,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “And it’s not like no one will know. Word will get out through a rumor mill. You don’t scare people by telling them what’s going on. You scare them by hiding information.”

In many places, reopening schools has taken on a distinctly partisan bent, with President Donald Trump and Republican governors such as Ron DeSantis of Florida urging in-person instruction. A constant flow of information about positive cases in classrooms and quarantined students could hinder those efforts, experts said.

“When schools have to shut down after students test positive, that doesn’t look good politically on governors and lawmakers who have advocated for opening up,” said Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida. “So the potential is there to hide behind privacy laws. There are definitely battle lines drawn, and the release of information can sway public opinion.”

Indeed, some states have seen growing concern after school doors opened and infections were immediately reported. In Georgia, nearly 2,500 students and 62 staff members in the Cherokee County School District have been ordered to quarantine, while 71 out of 82 counties in Mississippi have reported cases in schools.

State notification policies vary widely across the country. Officials in Colorado and North Carolina are reporting which schools have had positive cases, while Louisiana, which had not previously identified specific schools with outbreaks, said this week that it was creating a new system to “efficiently report relevant COVID-19 data in schools for greater public visibility.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Oklahoma does not require school districts to report COVID-19 cases to health departments. And some states that do, including Maine, said that privacy concerns prevent officials from sharing those details with the public. Tennessee this week backed away from a previous commitment by the governor to report the number of cases linked to schools and is providing information only by county.

In Virginia, state law prohibits the health department from disclosing cases at specific facilities, including schools, said Tammie Smith, a spokesperson for the state health commissioner. The commissioner had originally said the same thing about nursing homes but was later ordered to release the data by Gov. Ralph Northam after a public outcry.

Disclosure plans at the district level reveal a similar patchwork. In New York City, the nation’s largest school system with 1.1 million students — and one of the few remaining big districts planning to open with in-person instruction — officials will tell families and students about each confirmed case, according to the city’s education department.

In Florida, the Pasco County school district outside Tampa will inform students and teachers who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, a district spokesman said, and will alert the rest of the school and the news media about confirmed cases.

But in nearby Orange County, which includes Orlando, the teachers union filed a lawsuit against the district in July after it refused to disclose the names of schools and workplaces where employees had tested positive for the virus, citing privacy laws.

“The district is totally nontransparent,” said Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, which represents the district’s 14,000 educators. “Of course we never asked for the individual’s name or any confidential information.”

Doromal said the union sued after teachers, including some with health issues that could make them more vulnerable to the virus, went to schools during the summer to retrieve belongings or volunteer, only to discover that some were closed for deep cleaning because of a positive case.

Other employees were told after they were already inside, she said. “We felt that was very irresponsible.”

A district spokesman declined to comment, citing the litigation.

The silence worries Kila Murphey, a nurse practitioner with two children in the district. “Simply saying that the health department is going to do contact tracing doesn’t really reassure me of anything,” she said. “We need to know that there was a COVID case and what steps the school is taking to ensure they don’t have an outbreak.”

Some administrators who have chosen not to publicly disclose infections at a particular school said they are concerned about the privacy of individual students or staff members.

In the North Kansas City school district in Missouri, which has about 20,000 students, the superintendent, Dan Clemens, told the school board at a meeting last month that local health officials had advised him to be cautious about sharing information; if only one or two people at a school test positive, he said, others might be able to figure out who it was.

“If I report any type of COVID cases, because the numbers are so low in Clay County and particularly within this school district, I would be imposing on the privacy rights of individuals within our community,” Clemens said at the meeting. “So I just want to be very careful.”

Officials often cite privacy laws such as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act when arguing against disclosure. Yet neither law bars public schools from releasing information about cases as long as they do not provide personal details about those who are infected, the federal education and health departments have said — and in some situations, even that might be allowed.

“School notification is an effective method of informing parents and eligible students of an illness in the school,” the Education Department wrote in March.

Schools have often abused privacy laws to hide damaging information that could expose them to lawsuits or negative media coverage, said Calvert at the University of Florida. “In the name of protecting personal privacy, many of those districts are really sacrificing public health concerns,” he said.

Such is the fear in Camden County, where in recent weeks the 40-bed hospital in St. Marys, the county seat, had to divert ambulances elsewhere because of a crush of coronavirus patients.

Although the district offered a choice between remote learning and in-person instruction, some families said they felt pressure to return when school started this month. Kiisa Kennedy, whose two children go to Camden County High School, said she agreed to let her 11th-grade son, a football player, attend classes because the district was not providing certain advanced courses to remote learners or letting them participate in sports.

Like other parents, she said she had heard of at least nine positive cases in the schools and entire classes that had to be quarantined, but the district refused to answer questions.

“They’ve been very hush-hush,” she said. “We as parents cannot make informed decisions because they’re withholding the information.”

The school district did not respond to several requests for comment.

Ginger Heidel, a spokeswoman for the Coastal Health District, the agency that covers several coastal counties in Georgia including Camden, declined to answer questions about virus cases in schools, citing privacy laws. She said schools were only required to alert people who have been in close contact with someone who had tested positive but were allowed to notify the community “if they want.”

Last week, the Camden County school district reversed course on its mask-optional policy, announcing that they would now be required on school grounds. But the announcement came with no information about cases linked to schools.

“That just made me more scared,” Kennedy said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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