What people don't know about COVID-19 in Delaware schools

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

As of Friday, 53 students and staff across Delaware public and private schools have tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 1, according to the Division of Public Health. 

A month into the school year, that’s the most detail the state is willing to offer when it comes to the presence of COVID-19 in schools. 

On the other hand, schools are required to notify families of any positive COVID-19 cases in school buildings. But how that information is disseminated – whether it’s publicly posted online, or just communicated to parents through emails and phone calls – varies by school. 

Because of that lack of consistency, in most communities, where one neighborhood block could include students from multiple districts, charters and private schools, members of the public are largely left unaware of possible COVID-19 cases near them.

PARENTS WANT TO KNOW: If someone in school tests positive for COVID-19, who gets notified?

As the fall approached, public health officials warned that out of the students and teachers walking in and out of schools, some would likely be carrying COVID-19 with them. 

Now, with little public data on COVID-19 at the school level, it’s difficult for community members to see how reopening schools fits into stopping the spread of COVID-19 in the larger community. 

For now, the state is only sharing aggregate state-level data. But could public health officials share more about COVID-19 cases in individual schools if they chose to? 

“As a health agency, we have to ensure that the data we release does not include potential identifiers that would make it easier to identify patients and their personal health information,” said Jennifer Brestel, a Division of Public Health spokeswoman. “School name would make it much easier to identify individuals, especially since the number of schools providing in-person instruction may be limited at the moment.”

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, has said at press briefings that so far, the state has not seen spread within schools.

But open government advocates say the public should still be able to see school-level data for themselves. 

“There’s responsibility to be more forthcoming with these specific COVID-19 outbreaks, so not only parents, but neighboring communities can have some confidence that this issue is being dealt with in the kind of manner that’s going to dampen this disease,” said John Flaherty, a board member on the Delaware Coalition for Open Government.

Unpacking privacy law

Two main privacy laws guide how public health agencies and schools handle student health data — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA; and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. 

HIPAA is meant to protect a patient's medical information, and applies to health care and insurance providers. FERPA protects the privacy of student education records. Schools must follow FERPA.  

PRIVACY LAW:Here's what Delaware can (and can't) say about its COVID-19 cases

Nationwide, health agencies and schools have cited these laws and privacy concerns to justify withholding health data throughout the pandemic. Now, seven months after the first COVID-19 cases in the country, states and local jurisdictions are still inconsistently applying the privacy laws when it comes to pandemic data. 

Desks are socially distanced apart at A plexiglass barrier sits on a desk at Lake Forest East Elementary School Wednesday, September 2, 2020.

The Delaware Department of Health and Human Services denied Freedom of Information requests made by the News Journal asking for the number of positive cases of COVID-19 broken down by school. 

“Because that is an identifier, we cannot share this data,” said Gabriela Kejner, chief of staff for the health agency.

How much school data health departments are willing to release differs by state. Most are offering cumulative data, like Delaware. But some take the data a step further, breaking it down by school and the number of students and staff who have tested positive. 

In New York, public and private schools are issued a “COVID-19 Report Card,” which breaks down whether the school is hybrid, remote or in-person; the number of students and staff on-site; as well as positive cases since the start of the school year. 

Public health officials in Montana release weekly updates about school-related cases, listing the number of students and staff who have tested positive at every school in the state. In Ohio, the public health agency maintains a similar list.  

According to the New York Times, 14 states maintain public dashboards of school-level COVID-19 data.  

PARENT NOTIFICATION:State reverses course, requires schools to notify families of COVID-19 cases

“When you get down to specific descriptive populations, that’s where the states don’t have any consistency in their interpretation of privacy law at all,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “The overzealous compliance with privacy laws seems to be a creature of coronavirus.” 

Students at Seaford Central Elementary School walk 6 feet apart into school before the start of the first day of classes Tuesday, September 8, 2020.

Part of the inconsistencies from state to state has to do with the lack of guidance from the federal government, said Jennifer Horney, founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology department. 

“Differences in the types of data being reported across jurisdictions is concerning and gives us an incomplete picture of the progress of the pandemic,” Horney said. “While local flexibility in response to public health emergencies is important, timeliness and completeness of accurate data is essential, particularly at this point in the pandemic when most of the spread is community-based, rather than facility-based.” 

Delaware health officials also cited state law when justifying why school-level data would infringe on patient privacy. 

Delaware code doesn’t lay out any parameters for what is considered identifiable information and what is not, instead letting health officials make that determination. Use of protected health information by state agencies is “limited to the minimum amount of information” deemed necessary by health officials, state law reads. 

Unlike the state, schools are able to notify parents of positive cases in buildings. But there is inconsistency regarding what members of the public are able to access. In Seaford School District, all positive cases are listed on the district’s website. Other districts only send messages to parents. That information is available publicly via freedom of information request.

Private schools are not obligated to share that information, complicating the patchwork of data the public has access to. Instead of state-approved school-level data, new cases spread through communities by word of mouth. 

A student at St. Anne's Episcopal School has their temperature taken upon arrival Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Middletown.

“Part of the concern with reporting school-based cases is getting it right,” Horney said. “Another part is protecting privacy. Finally, there is potential for stigma if schools report an outbreak, especially since there are multiple other exposures that may have led to the case.” 

But government transparency advocates still say that members of the public should be able to evaluate those numbers themselves.

Flaherty said he’s been impressed by the amount of COVID-19 data the state has released so far, but that further openness would help the public have confidence in how the state and school leaders are handling things. 

“I’m sure that a school that has a high level of COVID-19 wouldn’t want this information to get out, but I think it’s for the greater good that the public be kept informed,” Flaherty said. “So surrounding communities can be assured that this disease is not going to impact their businesses and livelihoods and institutions.”

In the coming weeks, more schools will start to transition into hybrid instruction, offering some level of in-person learning. With more students in school buildings, taxpayers have a right to know how that transition is going in a data-driven way, LoMonte, with the University of Florida, said. 

“The public is certainly entitled to know if the school board and superintendent made a wise or an unwise decision, and whether they used adequate safety precautions,” LoMonte said. “And knowing that number [of COVID-19 cases] is the only way for the public to do that. Otherwise, we’re just left on the honor system. Government doesn’t work on the honor system.”

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com