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Florida Districts Differ On School COVID-19 Information Released

Marianna High School has been identified as one of three schools in Jackson County where a staff member made contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Jackson County School District
Marianna High School has been identified as one of three schools in Jackson County where a staff member made contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

K-12 schools across the state began sending people home to self-isolate within days of classes starting. Some districts are releasing the names of schools where close contact with a confirmed positive case has occurred, while others are not disclosing this information.

Right before students in Jackson County returned to the classroom, first graders at Marianna K-8 School were asked to quarantine at home for two weeks. Superintendent Larry Moore says he quickly made the decision after county health department officials notified him that the school’s first-grade teachers were possibly exposed to the virus while planning for the upcoming semester.

“Our school staff at that school issued those [Google] Chromebooks to the students in those classes, and we started instruction for that group of students via the internet,” Moore said. "We’ve been teaching those children via the virtual option.”

First graders at the school will return to the classroom for in-person instruction on Monday, Sept. 8. Parents have until Friday to choose the district’s e-learning option, iJackson, for their child, Moore said. Students who are quarantined throughout the semester can also use the platform to complete their assignments from home.

Moore says 31 staff members at three schools were asked to quarantine at home within the first week of school starting. A district press release identified those facilities as Marianna K-8 School, Marianna High School and Jackson County School at Sunland.

In addition to notifying the public of schools where contact tracing is taking place, administrators are placing phone calls to parents and guardians to let them know if their child had close contact with a positive case, Moore said. “I would want to know if my grandchild was in a class where there was a positive.”

Jackson County Schools is among at least four districts in the region that are publicly disclosing the names of the schools where students or staff have tested positive. Districts in Leon, Calhoun and Franklin Counties are also releasing that information.

Jackson County School District officials say kindergarteners at Marianna K-8 School are wearing their masks and washing their hands regularly without complaint after school started on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Jackson County School District - Facebook Page
Jackson County School District officials say kindergarteners at Marianna K-8 School are wearing their masks and washing their hands regularly without complaint after school started on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

“The possibility of a child going home to a family member in the house that is medically compromised in some way and carrying the virus home with them - I think that’s a big concern,” Moore said. “Keeping people informed, I think, it helps prevent some situations like that where that could be a concern.”

Jackson County DOH officials have not discouraged him from releasing the names of schools where contact tracing has taken place, Moore said. “They’ve just been very, very helpful in dealing with the contact tracing and helping us develop our own protocols,” he said. “It’s been a real team effort.”

Leon County Schools has also recently notified the public that a staff member at Chiles High School and a middle school student in the district tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

Other districts aren't releasing the names of schools where staff and students have been asked by the county health department to quarantine at home due to potential exposure at school.

Within one week of school starting, more than 100 students and staff in Bay County were asked to self-isolate for two weeks after they had close contact (within six feet for longer than 15 minutes) with someone who tested positive for the virus.

Bay District Schools is holding off on making the names of schools with positive cases public. “Obviously, we would never share names [of students],” said Lyndsey Jackson, the district’s supervisory school nurse. “If we’re able to share what school it was at, we would like to.”

As the point-of-contact for administrators’ COVID-19-related questions, Jackson is coordinating the district’s contact-tracing efforts. But she says she only makes decisions backed by county health department officials, even though the department has no regulatory authority over the district. “That has been escalated through the heads at the Bay County Health Department,” she said. “I’m just waiting on guidance on what we can share and what format would be best to share that in.”

Jackson says district leaders were developing a method of informing everyone in the community of the number of positive cases identified at each school before students returned to the classroom. “Before we got very far in that process, we found that Duval County had created a sort of dashboard by which they were going to notify everyone in their district when there was a case and what school it occurred at,” she said. “Soon after they started that, the Duval County Health Department informed them that they could only share information that their Department of Health gave them permission to share and that what they were sharing was not appropriate, so they had to stop that process.”

Jackson says the district then followed suit and halted its plans to share that information with the public.

All county health departments in the state are regulated by the Florida Department of Health.

Health department officials in Bay County and at the state office declined to comment for this story. Instead they directed this reporter to a state statute that makes epidemiological reports confidential. The statute allows information in those reports to be disclosed “when necessary to public health.”

“We need somebody to take that to a court and say, ‘Declaratory judgment, Governor, you’ve declared a state of emergency, this language applies. And therefore, all of the epidemiological reports should be turned over, too,’” said Pamela Marsh, Tallahassee-based attorney and president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

Marsh says state leaders cited this same statute when trying to shield the names of nursing homes that had confirmed cases. They also tried to claim that the HIPAA privacy rule protected the names of facilities where contact-tracing had taken place.

“HIPAA only protects the identity of individuals, not the names of facilities. That has nothing to do with HIPAA. They came out with a couple of other excuses," Marsh said. "Ultimately, the Miami Herald decided to bring a lawsuit. We joined. And several other news organizations joined, and we let them know in advance we’re going to bring this lawsuit. Well, guess what? Then they started saying, ‘We’ll identify the nursing homes.’”

Several districts have also cited concerns over violating the HIPAA privacy rule when explaining their decision not to let the public know where they’ve identified cases, butthat rule generally doesn't apply to K-12 schools.

In Holmes County, school district leaders reported 31 students and three teachers were quarantining at home last week after health officials identified positive cases on campus. Like Bay County Schools, the district is not releasing the names of those schools at this time.

"We’re working with the DOH and DOE to determine what sort of regular update we can provide to you about cases, within the confines of HIPAA and other guidelines," explains a press release from the Holmes District School Board. "We want to give you as much information as we can and we appreciate your patience while we work with the DOH and DOE to determine exactly what is permissible."

Florida Department of Education officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

Jackson County Schools Superintendent Larry Moore says the district hasn't received any pushback from the state and will continue informing the public as much as possible throughout the school year.

"It’s very important that those parents are aware," Moore said. "They can make their own decision as to whether they want to continue to send their child to school for face-to-face instruction or they can then opt to keep their child at home if they feel that's necessary."

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.