Across Iowa, schools are seeing and reporting rising cases of COVID-19 among their populations.
How—and whether—schools notify parents about positive cases is left up to school districts to decide. So far, many are providing those notifications, but most are only giving broad information, like noting when there’s a positive case in a school building or among a grade level as opposed to in a specific class. Most cite privacy laws for the lack of more precise information.
Some Iowa parents think the notification system leaves something to be desired, and every school seems to have a different approach.
Williamsburg Community School District
Callie Reynolds, mother of a child in the Williamsburg Community School District, shared the notification email she got from Mary Walsh Elementary.
It reads that a member of the staff or student body has reported a positive COVID test, and parents don’t need to do anything other than monitor the family for COVID symptoms. The email also emphasizes that if a child or staff member doesn’t feel well, they should stay home.
Parents are also encouraged to report positive cases to the school nurses so they can monitor.
“If a pattern is identified, we’ll send more detailed information as we’re able, while still honoring privacy expectations,” the email reads.
Burlington Community School District
Christy Richardson, who has a daughter in her sophomore year, shared the district’s Facebook post, which says, “Based on the updated guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health on Sept. 2, 2021, the Burlington Community School District will no longer conduct contact tracing.”
Starting Line reached out to the superintendent’s office for clarification and was told that parents will be notified if there’s a direct contact in their classroom and that the school is monitoring positivity rates internally. The part of the announcement about contact tracing is regarding the school not requiring anyone to quarantine.
The office said parents will get a call or an email.
College Community School District
Jennifer Schulte has three children in the district that covers parts of Linn, Johnson and Benton counties. The district is sending notifications, and she said they’ve received about 12 between the two schools.
“The letters are a double-edged sword,” Schulte said in an email. “It’s nice to have a notification, but the notification is misleading. And that almost makes it worse. We’re headed down the road of weekly testing until our youngest can get vaccinated.”
When the school sends notifications, Schulte said, they’re too broad to really be helpful. A notification goes out to every person in a group of classrooms that share a teacher, even if the positivity was only in one of those classrooms.
“I know for ninth grade they send it by classroom,” she said. “But my twins have eight classes each, so that’s a potential of 16 different classrooms.”
The letter informs parents that quarantine is optional, but is recommended by public health as a mitigation strategy. It also provides the exposure date and the approximate date the quarantine would end.
Iowa City Community School District and Clear Creek Amana School District
With five kids in five different schools and three grade levels, Missy Ortman has a lot of experience with schools’ notification systems. She said Clear Creek Amana is contact tracing and notifying close contacts, defined as being within six feet of the infected person for two hours.
“I appreciate that the school or district nurse reaches out, gives me the specific date of last exposure, and allows me a chance to ask questions,” Ortman said in an email. “It puts me at ease to know that they are working hard to keep kids as safe as possible.”
On the other hand, her high schoolers haven’t had any notifications of close contacts. One of Ortman’s children is a student at Liberty High in the Iowa City School District.
“ICCSD recently sent an email that says that they are too overwhelmed to contact parents of close contacts. Secondary students/parents will only be notified if they were in a class with an infected student,” she said. “If it means finding out sooner that my student has been exposed in some capacity, I am okay with that.”
In that update email, the district also provided a link to find vaccine providers and repeated encouragement that everyone at school wears masks indoors and gets vaccinated.
Cedar Rapids School District
Kimberlee Bogs, a mother of three in the Cedar Rapids school district, said parents receive form letters notifying them of grade-level exposure at the school.
On Wednesday, she received a letter from Benjamin Franklin Middle School notifying her of a student or staff member in grade seven testing positive, though her middle-schooler attends school virtually.
The letter is similar to other districts, and Bogs said she’s only notified about infections in the seventh-grade section, but not sixth or eighth.
Her high schooler, who attends all but one class in person, has had one or two notifications from the school.
“They all just have a form letter,” Bogs said in an email. “The only thing different is the school name.”
The letter says that students and staff may still attend school as long as they’re asymptomatic. If not, the school offers other guidelines that are provided by the state. The person must stay home until at least 10 days have passed since symptoms appeared, at least 24 hours have passed without fever, and other symptoms are improving.
West Des Moines Community Schools
In West Des Moines, parents receive letters notifying them of positive cases in their children’s schools, but the letter says the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) limits them from sharing more specific exposure information.
The letter then explains that parents aren’t required to quarantine their student, the school district isn’t allowed to confirm if a parent’s student was in direct contact with the positive child, and parents should notify the school if they’re keeping their child home and the absence will be counted as excused.
Schools across the state are encouraged to treat COVID-19 as any other childhood illness. The Iowa Department of Public Health does provide information about quarantining procedures.
Tammy Votava, the communications director for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said in an email that the organization isn’t aware of any requirements or guidelines from the state about the information school districts have to give parents or whether there’s a point when they must notify parents.
“In addition to the guidance on reporting data, we tell districts that reporting this data is a local decision, and districts need to consider the context and communication needs of their local communities,” she said.
State data, updated this week, show that, statewide, children ages 0-17 make up 29% of the positive tests in the last seven days, the highest of any individual age group.
For comparison, 18-29 year-olds make up 18%, while 30-39 year-olds make up 16%.
In most of Iowa’s counties, the 0-17 age group also has either the highest or second-highest positivity rate.
The same data show 15 children in the hospital, 12 of them between ages 1 and 11 and three between ages 12 and 17. None of the hospitalized children are vaccinated.
Some school districts share COVID information on their websites which have positivity numbers for the schools, but there’s no standard for how much information is required and what form it should take. Others simply link to the state’s website.
On the state website, each county can be filtered to see positivity rates in that county, including breakdowns by age, sex and race.
by Nikoel Hytrek