Why you might not know if there was COVID-19 at your child’s school

You may or may not find out if there was a COVID-positive case at your child’s school, because reporting varies at pubic school systems across East Tennessee.
Tennessee Department of Health reports Covid-19 cases of school-aged children
Tennessee Department of Health reports Covid-19 cases of school-aged children(WVLT)
Published: Aug. 25, 2020 at 8:43 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - You may or may not find out if there was a COVID-positive case at your child’s school, because reporting varies at public school systems across East Tennessee. While school systems report cases to health officials and to those immediately exposed, they do not all announce cases to the entire community, citing privacy concerns. WVLT asked public school systems about their policies for reporting cases of the virus.

Director Shane Johnston of Jefferson County Schools said the system will let families of those immediately affected know about a positive case, but an announcement will not be made system-wide. “We’re going to be as transparent with everyone as possible. And we want to make sure that we are communicating with the parents and our stakeholders on positive cases, and at the same time there is certain information that we cannot share. We just want to make sure that we are providing privacy rights and honoring those of individuals that are involved.”

In Oak Ridge Schools, reporting to the community includes specifics such as whether a student or staff member tested positive and at which school buildings.

Superintendent Bruce Borchers said in a statement, “It is our ultimate desire to protect the well-being of our students, staff, and families in our community as we start this school year. Being transparent and sharing information about confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our schools is part of our efforts to maintain trust and make everyone aware of what is happening in our schools. We continue to express our appreciation of the precautions our students, families, and staff members take in the interest of keeping our families healthy.”

Here are how more school systems responded to the question, “Are you reporting all COVID-19 positive cases connected to this school system to parents system wide and to media outlets? Why or why not?”

Communications Director Ryan Sutton with Anderson County Schools: ”We have received guidance from different health organizations in the state with regards to HIPPAA and FRPA violations of privacy in those schools. Some of our schools contain very few children, so privacy is a concern for us. If we did report there is a certain case in a certain school, some our classrooms and some of our schools are very small and that could potentially breach the privacy of that student.”

Director Michael Garren with Loudon County Schools: “We notify parents of students that need to be quarantined because of close contact based on contact tracing with a personal phone call. We then do a school messenger call to all the parents of the school, so they are aware we’ve had a case even though their child wasn’t affected.”

Assistant Superintendent Debra Cline with Sevier County School System: “In compliance with FERPA and in cooperation with the Sevier County Health Department, we are reporting COVID-19 positive cases, isolation, and/or quarantines to any appropriate parties when some information comes to our attention.”

Director Matt Hixson with Hawkins County Schools: “We are reporting all identified COVID-19 concerns (probable or positive cases). We are updating the necessary spreadsheets tracking close contract tracing as agreed upon in coordination with our regional health office. Our chart is publicly available on our website:”

Director Rebecca Stone with Alcoa City Schools: “Yes. I make a daily phone call with COVID 19 updates.”

Director Shelley Walker with the Tennessee Department of Health said this about how data gets reported at the state level, and why it does not identify each school, “We report cases by county of residence of the patient, and report test results as soon as we receive them from the labs. The administration continues to evaluate how to best balance public interest surrounding COVID-19 cases in schools with stringent privacy requirements under both HIPAA and FERPA.”

The Tennessee Department of Health does keep a database of school-aged children who have been reported as positive COVID-19 cases.

Knox County Schools debuted its own COVID-19 dashboard Monday.

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