No provisions in place to alert general public to COVID-19 cases in schools

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 19, 2020 10:03 AM CT | Published: August 19, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Students are returning to classrooms and are already testing positive for COVID-19, but no one — including the Shelby County Health Department — knows how many positive cases there are in the schools.

That’s because there is no requirement for schools to notify the health department, and there are no plans to inform the public when there is an outbreak at a school.

Like Shelby County, COVID-19 reporting among schools statewide is random

There’s not even a set number of positive cases established that would require a school to send students home and close.

This random approach has left each school system on its own to decide what information, if any, to report to the health department and to release to the public.

As a result, there is a scattershot approach to dealing with positive cases in schools.

On Tuesday, Harding Academy suspended athletics and moved its 9-12th grade students to virtual learning for two weeks after 12 coronavirus cases were confirmed. (The lower and middle schools remain open for in-person instruction, although parents have the option of choosing remote learning.)

In Millington, where schools opened Aug. 10, a positive case was immediately identified and the district sent out a press release.

Collierville Schools said the district will inform parents and the larger community about any COVID-19 cases in the district’s nine schools.

But the Catholic Diocese of Memphis would not confirm a positive case that several independent sources told The Daily Memphian it had at one of its schools.

And Bartlett City Schools said it would not release any information to the public about positive results.

Why is there not a unified, transparent approach to dealing with positive cases in schools? It depends on whom you ask.

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said she is waiting on guidance from state officials.

“If or when the Tennessee Department of Health makes a decision to post schools that have cases or clusters, we will post locally,” Haushalter said. “Any questions regarding the Tennessee Department of Health should be directed to them.”

Gov. Bill Lee reiterated Tuesday the state will not reveal the number of COVID-19 cases in individual schools because of federal privacy laws. The governor reversed course from a statement two weeks ago when he said the state plans to release information on cases in schools.

But Lee and others in his administration emphasized the state is not stopping school districts from making that information public. 

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said local school boards can consult with their attorneys and make decisions based on their reading of federal health privacy laws. 

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“We know that districts and schools are able to make the best decisions for their local communities,” Schwinn said.

The federal laws in question are the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

HIPAA does not apply to schools, and FERPA does not prohibit schools from releasing information if people aren’t named.

“FERPA is to protect people from figuring out and determining who that person is,” Lee said during a press briefing at the State Capitol on Tuesday. “And there are a lot of different ways that happens, and we have to protect individual privacy so that parents, families, other families can’t find out information about this family’s children.”

For example, if officials announce that five cases were reported in a school with only 200 students, that could lead to the identification of those students, Schwinn said.

While Haushalter acknowledges “the need to balance public interest and individual privacy,” she stops short of calling for keeping the public informed of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

Like Shelby County, COVID-19 reporting among schools statewide is random

“To reduce the spread of COVIID-19 in our community, it is critically important that information is shared with individuals who are at-risk so they can take appropriate action to protect themselves, their families and their loved ones,” she said. “Our priority is assuring that information is shared with those who are cases or who are at risk due to contact/exposure.”

Shelby County Schools parent Katy Leopard, who is grateful her district has shielded families from this by having remote learning this fall, said she can’t imagine not having that information.

“Putting your child in a school is such a difficult decision to make as a parent,” Leopard said. “You are trying to do the right thing for your child, and you can’t make that decision without this information.

“I don’t know why we would be making it harder for parents to make the right choice,” she said. “Instead, it ends up feeling like they are trying to hide something.

“I am sure they are not, but it creates that appearance,” she said. “That is more unnecessary worry for parents.”

Officials at some school districts agree with Leopard and parents like her and are not waiting for guidance -- not from the state or the county.

“It is important that we over-communicate with all stakeholders information that relates to the COVID-19 pandemic in our schools,” Collierville Schools Superintendent Gary Lilly said.

So Collierville Schools will inform parents and the larger community about any COVID-19 cases in the district’s nine schools.

“Parents and caregivers need current information on our mitigation efforts, if and when there is a positive case in a school, and how our protocols will manage the transition of the virus,” Lilly said. “This school year, our top priorities are safety, innovation and communication. We can never have too much information to share with parents this school year.”

Lilly said there are two forms of communication parents may receive. One is general communication about a case in the school. Those in close proximity to the positive case will be given instructions to quarantine.

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“The reason for two forms of communication is to maintain continual communication and transparency with our families and staff,” Lilly said. “We do not want this information to surface throughout our community and catch our community members off guard, our position is to be fully transparent throughout this process.”

Millington Municipal Schools is taking a similar approach. When the district discovered a positive case right after the schools opened, it sent out a press release.

The press release identified the positive case only as a contract employee and did not identify the building where the employee worked.

“We want our families to stay informed,” said district spokesman Matt Bowser. “The contracted employee had very little interaction with students and/or staff, and the two contacts were notified.”

But Collierville and Millington appear to be the exceptions.

Most schools are trying to balance the need for transparency with the need to protect privacy by only notifying students and faculty who’ve had prolonged direct contact with somebody who has tested positive. So they are handling parental notification similar to the “head lice letter” parents receive when a case of lice is identified in the classroom.

Others are taking it case by case. Still others are not sending any notifications.

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The Catholic Diocese of Memphis would not confirm a case several sources said it had at one of its schools.

“In accordance with federal and state privacy laws, the Diocese does not publicly comment as to any specific health-related-matter concerning any student or staff member,” diocesan human resources director Sandra Goldstein said in a statement late last week.

Ted Horrell, superintendent at Lakeland School System, said if the number of positive cases jumps precipitously, the district will take appropriate action, including closing schools. 

“Similarly, if multiple students in the same classroom were COVID-19 positive, we wouldn’t just keep sending the same letter home to that class,” Horrell said. “We would discuss whether to quarantine that class.”

Bartlett City Schools does not intend to make schoolwide announcements if there are outbreaks.

“It’s inevitable you’re going to be faced with (COVID-19 cases), but we have plans in place to clean those areas, those spaces,” said Bartlett City Schools Superintendent David Stephens. “If we need to shut down a classroom for a period of time, if we need to quarantine kids or flip them to the virtual option, we have that built into our K-12 plan.

“I feel like we’ve got solid plans to address that.”

Albert Throckmorton, headmaster at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, said the local health department worked closely with public and private schools to help them understand reporting protocols.

“The Shelby County Health Department is relying on the schools actually to get the word out sooner,” he said. “It is possible the family would know the (test) results before Shelby County Health Department would get the results.

Schools can stay open until COVID positivity rate hits 25%, Health Department says

“The schools become really helpful in doing the contact tracing directly from the school hours. The department has said that.”

At St. Mary’s, parents whose child was within six feet of a positive person for 15 minutes will receive an immediate phone call, Throckmorton says.

“It is immediate communication because we are telling them they need to go into quarantine,” he said. “Beyond that, schools are taking different approaches about courtesy notifications for students who aren’t considered exposed.”

Haushalter said schools will be investigated just like any other cluster outbreak, whether it’s a nursing home, a jail or another high-risk facility.

“We have a dedicated team of individuals that can provide support to schools,” she said. “We will continue to be in close partnership with the schools.

“It’s really going to take the schools as well as the health department and families to be able to identify contacts quickly and get them quarantining.”


COVID School reopening Shelby County Health Department Tennessee Department of Education

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Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.

Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren is a lifelong resident of Shelby County and a graduate of the University of Memphis. She has worked for several local publications and covers the suburbs for The Daily Memphian.

Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf covers Bartlett and North Memphis neighborhoods for The Daily Memphian. He also analyzes COVID-19 data each week. Omer is a former Jackson Sun reporter and University of Memphis graduate.


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