Craven County Schools issued a news release on its website and via social media to report several cases of COVID-19 earlier this week, as it has done in the past.
There were two things that were different, however.
First, the district didn’t say what or which schools were affected by the new cases.
Second, this news release listed students as being among those who tested positive for the virus.
The Post contacted Jennifer Wagner, spokesperson for Craven County Schools, asking for more information. She responded.
The two issues are actually entwined in HIPAA, the federal health law that among other things protects patient privacy.
“Based on the number of students reported as positive COVID cases, even though we are currently under Plan C (all remote learning), we do have students on campus,” Wagner said.
The following students are approved to be on campus:
- High school athletes, who are allowed on campus for practice and physical conditioning.
- Children of staff, who are allowed on campus during school hours because school faculty are unable to work from home, and saddling them with the added day care costs would eat into teacher paychecks that are already stretched thin.
“While on-site all students are required to follow strict safety protocols to include: daily temperature checks, screening questions, wearing a mask, social distancing, and frequent hand washing,” Wagner said.
Now obviously, despite the much lower density of students on campus than usual, they are catching the virus. Aside from proving that non-adults are not “almost immune”, it shifts status from student to patient.
Enter HIPAA. HIPAA’s a bear that you don’t want to cross, although interpretation of how strict to be to comply with HIPAA varies from agency to agency.
Craven County Health Department withheld ethnic information about COVID-19 for weeks because a recent spike affected a small ethnic group in the New Bern area. When someone dies of COVID-19, Craven County Health will release the date of testing, the date of a positive test, and the date of death. That’s it.
But the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is releasing data about numbers of infected in nursing homes, which have far fewer numbers than public schools.
Count Craven County Schools is an agency that severely limits the information it releases.
Wagner explains: Craven County has some big schools, and it has some small schools. It has schools with young children, and schools with near-adults.
With all those variables and more, releasing information such as the name of the school involved could wind up costing a child his or her privacy.
For example, if a high school reports a student has COVID, it is likely that student is an athlete whose name appears on a team roster and who has a TikTok or Snapchat account.
It would be a lot easier to track down who these teenagers are than it would be to figure out which grade-schooler age 5 to 10 years old has it at an elementary school.
Or would it? A sick elementary school student is without a doubt a staff child and not on a school athletic team. If the child is infected, the parent will be, too, or at least will be quarantined for it. Again, a little sleuthing would not be difficult to connect numbers to names.
Craven Schools tested the system when it reported an outbreak at Creekside Elementary. People … freaked … out, so to keep that from happening again, the district changed its policy.
“As a school system dedicated to continuous improvement, we are always seeking ways in which we can make improvements related to every aspect of our district including communicating with our stakeholders,” Wagner said. “After reviewing our communication process we decided it is best to protect the confidentiality of our staff and students when reporting positive cases.
“Going forward when we share the press releases regarding a positive COVID case we will not report the school name. In our communication process, we do have measures in place to contact the staff and families of students directly of close contacts and communicating with the staff and families when a school is impacted.”
So that’s what they did THIS time. And people freaked out, again.
The general public not knowing which school is affected is an issue all its own, but the more prominent issue was the part about students being infected.
Social media comments started over how students could be sick if all students were attending class remotely. Some speculated that the district was counting kids who get sick at home. Another wondered if the counting would include students who attend private school. Then some let it out that staff get to take their kids to school, which opened up new subjects for debate.
Wagner said very few faculty and no staff are working from home. Teachers need access to their classroom resources and it would be impractical to move all that stuff to teachers’ home offices.
Those staff who have to be on campus to do their job, can bring their child or children to school for supervision or to take classes (online, as well, even though they are on a school campus).