Tennessee’s governor is feeling heightened pressure to release more information about coronavirus clusters and contacts in schools. Educators and epidemiologists see a way to release information without violating student privacy.
“It can be done,” says Vanderbilt epidemiologist Melissa McPheeters, who previously worked for the Tennessee Department of Health.
In a discussion with WPLN News, she said public health officials have ways to disclose case numbers in schools without students being individually identifiable, which state officials have said is the primary concern.
Schools and public health departments need to jointly publicize these counts, she says, not just to satisfy curiosity among students and parents.
“They may have a person in their household who is particularly vulnerable. They really need to know what the exposures are that their children are facing as they make those decisions,” McPheeters says.
It’s like reporting when a student brings a gun to school, says principal Susan Kessler at Hunters Lane High School in Nashville.
“We share that information with the community, even though the entire school may not have had any interaction or passed that child. But it doesn’t matter. Everyone finds out,” Kessler says.
This kind of transparency also stops the rumor mill from churning, she adds.
Tennessee school districts have taken a variety of approaches as they manage outbreaks. A few, including Putnam County Schools, are disclosing all student and teacher cases by school.
But right now, the state Department of Education is not encouraging other systems to do the same, saying federal student privacy laws won’t allow it. The Tennessee Department of Health says HIPAA prevents them from disclosing outbreaks either, though experts have noted there are public health exemptions that should apply.