Bulloch County Schools officials do not intend to inform the public of how many students or school system employees test positive for or show symptoms of COVID-19, unless the Georgia Department of Public Health tells them to do so.
But the Georgia DPH generally would only inform people directly involved, such as those who need to self-quarantine, and any decision to make information about the schools available to the general public would have to be made by the school system, a spokesperson with the DPH’s Southeast Health District said Friday. An exception could be made if public health officials cannot locate individuals who need to quarantine.
The school system’s position was outlined in a slide show about the “traditional option” of face-to-face schooling presented July 23 to the Bulloch County Board of Education. In the section about the expected response when employees or students become ill, one
line stated: “All contact tracing and necessary communication to be handled by the DPH.” Contact tracing means the effort to locate anyone who has come into close contact with someone believed to have the coronavirus. Those contacts may then be instructed to self-quarantine.
Another line added that schools or the school system will communicate with parents, employees or the public “as requested by DPH.”
“If the S.E. District DPH or Georgia DPH directs us to assist them to mass communicate public health information to the community we will, but otherwise we will follow their direction, and respect their authority and jurisdiction,” Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools public relations director, said in an email Thursday.
The Statesboro Herald had directed several questions to Greene, and through her also to Bulloch Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson, motivated in part by the fact that some Georgia school systems this week reported information to the public about COVID-19 cases occurring among school employees and students. Meanwhile, classes are scheduled to resume on the Bulloch County system’s 15 campuses Aug. 17 – a week from Monday – with 54% of students designated to attend traditional, or in-person, school. Parents of the other 46% of students have chosen the stay-at-home option of virtual instruction.
Cherokee starts rough
Among the systems reporting initial troubles with an in-person start of school are the Cherokee County School District, headquartered at Canton in the Atlanta metro area. By Thursday, four days into the school year there, the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger News was reporting that seven Cherokee County schools had sent students, including some entire classes, into two-week quarantine after six students and an after-school program worker tested positive for COVID-19 and a teacher experienced symptoms.
News reports identified the specific schools and grade levels, and some media organizations cited a school system spokesperson as the source.
Cherokee County last March had 42,645 students enrolled, in comparison to the Bulloch County system’s 10,878 students at that time. School in Cherokee County is continuing, and quarantined students reportedly will receive virtual instruction while at home.
Barrow cancels in-person
But the Barrow County Schools, at Winder west of Athens, announced Wednesday that they would abandon plans to start school in-person Aug. 17 and instead have all students attend classes virtually. More than 90 of the school district’s approximately 1,800 full- and part-time employees had tested positive for the coronavirus, the Associated Press reported. The Barrow system in March had 14,275 students.
When the Statesboro Herald asked, “Have any (Bulloch County) school system administrators, teachers or staff tested positive for COVID? If so, how many?” and referred to school districts such as Cherokee County as being transparent in this regard, Greene took issue with the implication.
“Our school district is transparent,” she wrote. “I believe it is inaccurate to say that if a district does not make public COVID-19 case announcements that it has a lack of transparency. I'm happy to discuss the individual privacy violations, vigilantism, social media sleuthing, bullying, and targeting that will occur in a county our size if we were to make public announcements of any possible COVID-19 cases.”
Greene said she knows her Cherokee County counterpart in public relations well but cannot speak for why that system made public reports about COVID-19 cases.
“That is a local decision between that school district's regional DPH director, Board of Education, and superintendent of schools to best address public health in their county, so I can't speak to the decisions that lead to Cherokee County's choice to make public reports,” Greene said. “Knowing and speaking to my counterparts in other Georgia districts, it is being handled both ways.”
She said she sees the question of public announcements about COVID-19 cases from both sides.
“As a public relations practitioner, everything in me believes we risk losing public trust if we don't report; however, that does not mean that reporting is the right thing to do for public health and privacy,” Greene wrote.
FERPA & HIPAA
She noted two federal laws that protect health and other personal information about individuals from release by certain agencies. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, bars schools from releasing educational and health information about individual students without permission. HIPAA the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, prohibits release of individuals’ health status and insurance information by certain entities.
But it isn’t obvious that that either of these laws would bar a school system from reporting numbers of students or employees affected by quarantines or stating which schools are involved. The Bulloch County system and individual schools have in past years released information about the number of absences occurring during peak flu season.
Superintendent Wilson, in a separate email after seeing Greene’s response, reinforced her point about transparency.
“As you know, we have always been transparent about how we handle matters but there are a lot of conflicting guidelines and rules about what we should do,” Wilson wrote. “We are attempting to be transparent about what we will/won't do, even if it is not what some want to hear.”
He also said the school system is “deferring to and partnering with the DPH,” noting that it is the agency with jurisdiction over public health in Georgia.
“The DPH has been very clear about everyone allowing them to do their work, including contact tracing and communication, and not overwhelming the public health system with unnecessary behavior and confusion,” Wilson said. “It is unfortunate that many are not cooperating, but (Bulloch County Schools) will continue to do its best.”
Wilson said he communicates with Georgia DPH Southeast Health District Director Dr. Rosemarie Parks and others on her staff on a regular basis.
A staff member at the Southeast Health District headquarters in Waycross said that Parks was away Friday. But after a message was left for the public relations office there, Risk Communicator Rebecca Reis called.
“The Department of Public Health, we don’t release any kind of patient information, in this case the school information,” Reis said. “We would not release it except in certain circumstances, for example if we weren’t able to locate individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19, and this is the case for any other communicable diseases.”
She said the DPH works with schools “to provide guidance on notification,” taking into account the exposure that occurred. Information about the department’s contact-tracing program, called the Healthy Georgia Collaborative, can be found at https://dph.georgia.gov/contact-tracing.
“If anyone has come out to be positive, then the individuals that are identified as a close contact, they will be notified,” Reis said.
When asked if the DPH would ever direct the school system to assist with the release of information to the public, she reiterated her first statement about only releasing information if needed to locate individuals.
“So, as a standard, we don’t release any kind of information like that, but if the school chooses to do that – which in this case it doesn’t sound like they are – that’s their decision,” Reis said.
Testing not required
The Bulloch County school system is not requiring teachers or other employees to be tested for COVID-19 before school starts. Greene noted that the DPH doesn’t recommend it.
“The Georgia Department of Public Health moved away from a testing protocol for COVID-19 prevention and into a Symptoms & Time-Based Strategy protocol for prevention,” she wrote. “They only recommend if certain contact tracing and symptom criteria are met, and there is no need for re-testing within a 90-day period.”
In answer to a question about personal protective equipment, Greene reported that the school district has distributed reusable masks to every employee. Schools have also been stocked with enough masks for every child and a limited reserve to replace lost or forgotten masks, she said.
Individuals are responsible for keeping up with and laundering their masks, and can also supply their own.
The school system is not requiring masks but is strongly encouraging students and employees to wear them.