Recently released state guidance warns school and local public health officials of unlawfully sharing COVID-19 positives publicly, raising concerns among Iowa’s teacher union, an independent data tracker and educators across the state about school districts’ transparency.
The Iowa Department of Education and Department of Public Health wrote in a joint document on Sept. 15 that school personnel cannot share information on individual COVID cases to any third party other than public health — public disclosure of the data would be both a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) violation and a breach of professional ethics.
The guidance comes after Iowa State Education Association in early September teamed up with Iowa COVID-19 Tracker founder Sara Willette to gather counts of positive COVID-19 cases reported by individuals or by school districts. ISEA officials, Willette and a vast number of educators on social media have called for continued cooperation from schools and community members to document reliable data.
“First, let’s be clear, this is simply guidance not a directive that must be followed,” said ISEA President Mike Beranek about the new IDPH and DOE direction.
“Second, it is not illegal for a school district to share data with Iowa COVID-19 In Our Schools, as long as it doesn’t violate the privacy of an individual. We applaud those school districts that continue to update communities with their own dashboards and websites as well … The ISEA believes the IDPH and the [I]DOE have an obligation and urgency to promote more transparency during this crisis rather than less.”
Currently, IDPH only reports positivity rates by county, not the number of cases within districts. So the majority of Iowa’s school districts have been sharing their numbers through ISEA and Willette, on their own website dashboards or in emails to their communities.
The new state guidance allows for data sharing on dashboards or in weekly reports to families only when there are 100 or more total students in the student population at a location, which would cut reporting off for some rural districts.
Other guidelines read that schools with no cases are allowed to report zero cases, schools with counts of 6 or more cases can release specific case counts and schools with 5 or fewer cases should not provide a specific count but can confirm there are cases within the school population.
“The thing to remember here is if it’s already publicly reported, that’s fine to share. But if I am a staff member … I can’t tell anyone other than public health if I’m doing in the course of my job because I need to tell public health. I can’t go home and tell my family. I can’t tell friends because it would be a FERPA violation and a violation of professional ethics for me to share that information,” said Department of Education Chief of School Improvement Amy Williamson on a Sept. 18 webinar outlining the document for school administrators.
“And it’s a really hot topic right now, we’re not suggesting that there are any teachers doing this. It’s just a good time to remind everyone what FERPA requires of us when we have really sensitive information on our hands … This is 100% to help schools protect themselves, protect kids, protect staff, protect data.”
DOE spokesperson Heather Doe also said “questions that have come up about information sharing at this unprecedented time,” was what triggered the guidance.
“This document was created to be a one-stop spot for guidance on being transparent in sharing information, while making sure that Iowans’ privacy is protected,” said Doe. “Schools and local public health are engaging in information sharing in a manner like never before, and we want to provide them with tools to assist them in these processes.”
Willette said she has already seen the implications of the new guidance in her data collection.
“Bondurant-Farrar comes to mind — they were originally shared by grade section, like Pre-K, 3-5 and 9-12. And then on Sept. 9 they stopped sharing like that, they started sharing exclusively whole district,” Willette said. “I thought that that was really weird. It was so weird actually that I took a screenshot like wait, their dashboard changed. They took away the breakdown and lumped everyone together.”
Davis County Community Schools on Sept. 18 said, using new state language, that less than 6 students currently tested positive with 58 students currently isolating or in quarantine. Less than 6 staff members also tested positive for COVID-19 with 6 in quarantine.
Ar-We-Va Community School District used the same language when updating their community on Sept. 17, when they said less than 5 student(s) were testing positive. The district cited the new state guidance as the reason for their change in their listing.
West Delaware School District credited the new guidance as well, in their updated return to learn plan which says that under the direction of IDPH, “we are not allowed to share positive case counts of 1-5 positive cases. If we have more than six active positive cases among our staff and students we will share exact numbers.”
But Willette encouraged her large social media following to continue reporting positive COVID cases, despite the recently released document.
“Iowans tell other Iowans what is happening. We work to keep each other informed. A ‘don’t share information’ document, intended to hide positives and exposures, won’t stop COVID-19 from getting into our schools and negatively impacting our kids, school staff, and families,” Willette wrote in a recent Facebook post.
by Isabella Murray
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