INDIANAPOLIS – As more than 1 million students head back to school – many in person – coronavirus outbreaks are likely to occur.
But it is unclear whether parents and the public will be told about those cases, whether in students or staffs.
It is shaping up to be the same kind of battle seen with nursing homes earlier in the pandemic. The state initially provided only aggregate numbers of cases and deaths but reversed course to name specific facilities a few weeks ago. Some counties provided data for specific facilities, and some refused.
“It's not if – it's when there is an outbreak,” said Noah Smith, father of three daughters at Snider High School.
His girls are returning when school opens Aug. 13, but he is nervous and anxious.
“It would be disconcerting if people had COVID-19 at Snider and we weren't told that,” Smith said.
The Indiana State Teachers Association agrees – and sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Eric Holcomb asking that cases be made public at the building level.
“We think everybody in the community needs the facts and the data,” said ISTA Vice President Jennifer Smith-Margraf. “It's the only way we can be sure that rumors aren't spreading around.”
She said if a teacher or student has a cough and stays home a few days, rumors can spread about them having COVID-19. But if the state tracks the cases publicly on the dashboard, it can halt misinformation.
Smith-Margraf knows there are privacy concerns, “but we are talking about a global pandemic where people are being required to make difficult decisions about whether or not to keep buildings open or send their child to school.”
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said Wednesday she is aware of the request and is in the process of investigating it further.
Federal privacy law prohibits identifying a person's medical information specifically. And if it's a small school, simply naming the school could lead those in the community to figuring out the person's identity. Aggregate statewide data is an option in the beginning until more cases occur.
Guidance put out by the Indiana Department of Education says the school must notify the local health department if a case is brought to its attention – whether it's a student or a teacher. The local health department and state contact tracers will work with the person infected to identify other students or staffers who might have been exposed.
“Due to privacy and confidentially concerns, a public announcement or notification to any other individuals is not recommended. The local health department will contact and instruct the individuals involved with the confirmed case regarding the next steps needed for the health of those individuals,” the document said.
Fort Wayne Community Schools' Return to Learn plan said close contacts – those who were closer than 6 feet for longer than 15 minutes – will be placed in quarantine and not permitted to attend school for 14 days.
“All others in the classroom would be informed and asked to self-monitor. While we understand parents may want information anytime there is a positive case in the building, we will only notify those directly affected or those who need to take specific action,” the plan said.
FWCS Spokeswoman Krista Stockman added that the district asks parents not to spread rumors of cases or assume the district is withholding information.
“If their child has been exposed, according to the Health Department's definitions and guidelines, parents will be notified,” she said.
East Allen County Schools spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said the health department would be in charge of public dissemination of information, but the district “will notify parents if a case is in a particular building.”
Indiana recorded 970 new cases with a seven-day positivity rate for tests of 6.9%. There were 13 new deaths statewide.
Allen County had 40 new cases and two deaths, and Kosciusko County reported 20 new cases and no deaths.
Collectively, other area counties had 23 new cases.