As schools in the Washington area inch toward reopening, a question looms: whether and how school districts will report coronavirus cases among students and staff.
This can make it hard to discover whether a school system has suffered an outbreak. When an employee in Montgomery County Public Schools’ central office recently tested positive for the virus, news of the case trickled out informally. Spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala confirmed it Wednesday, saying she could not release more details due to medical confidentiality but anyone potentially exposed was notified and the superintendent and school board had been informed.
But there are a few bright spots: Loudoun County Public Schools in Northern Virginia, for example, sends schoolwide emails whenever a student or employee case emerges, as well as blasting an alert to local media outlets. The school system of 82,000 has followed this policy ever since campuses shut down in March, even though Loudoun students are pursuing remote learning this fall and do not physically set foot in school buildings.
Last week, this led to a string of notifications, as eight employees across five middle schools and one elementary school tested positive for the virus in seven days.
“From the beginning, this transparency was important to me and the school board,” Schools Superintendent Eric Williams said. “There is so much stress from ambiguity relating to the pandemic, and so it’s a small step to take away some uncertainty, because parents and staff members know we’re going to let them know.”
As October gets underway — the month when many school districts in the D.C. area have said they will return select groups of students to classrooms — anxious parents, public health experts and elected officials are calling for more transparency. They want to see swift and uniform reporting of cases.
“We haven’t gotten any emails or any sort of information about reported cases — emails, texts, anything,” said Anna Konschak, parent to a kindergartner in Fairfax County Public Schools. “I would love to see it.”
State Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), who has two grandchildren enrolled in the Fairfax school system, recently introduced legislation in the state Senate that would require school systems to publicly report outbreaks of the coronavirus.
Barker said the bill — a version of which has passed in both the Senate and the House, and is likely to land on the governor’s desk within the next two weeks — does not specifically define what counts as an outbreak. He suggested somewhere between two to five cases should force disclosure.
“It’s important for the public to have this information so they can be able to make decisions,” Barker said.
In a statement, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he is “committed to transparency and he strongly supports this legislation.” He added he is “looking forward” to the bills reaching his desk.
The debate over reporting in D.C. and its suburbs mirrors a larger conflict playing out nationwide. School districts throughout the country have been reluctant to release information about virus cases — although that may be shifting.
In late August, Louisiana officials debuted a disease surveillance website that offers data on coronavirus cases at K-12 schools throughout the state. In Texas, the state government on Sept. 8 began requiring that school districts file weekly reports on new coronavirus cases among students. And in late September, 24 members of Congress signed a letter urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin publishing national data on coronavirus cases in schools.
Those arguing against disclosure sometimes point to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. But those laws do not forbid public school systems from publishing data about cases, provided the information released does not give out personal information about the infected.
In fact, the U.S. Education Department published a letter specifically urging the disclosure of school cases back in March. “School notification is an effective method of informing parents and eligible students of an illness in the school,” the letter argues.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has not said how or if city officials will publicize school-related virus cases. The D.C. Health Department has said it is not disclosing outbreaks at day cares to the public.
The public school system in the nation’s capital is online-only, but officials said that they are considering bringing back groups of students starting Nov. 9, and that they will notify the entire school community if someone tests positive in the building. KIPP DC, the city’s largest charter network, said it is following similar protocols. The network said it has had no positive cases since some in-person learning started this fall.
Recently, at least three staff members in the traditional public school system who had been in school buildings tested positive for the virus. School officials then sent notices to employees at each individual campus. Students were not in the buildings at the time.
“This is a topic that we know that teachers and families want a complete understanding of how it works,” Bowser said Monday. “When we talk about our schedule for Nov. 9 we want to have sample language that they will receive in the event — if there is an event — of a case at their school. It will be all outlined.”
In the Maryland suburbs, it’s not easy to find data about school-related outbreaks. The health departments in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties do not post numbers about school-related cases, and neither do public school systems.
In Montgomery County, Health Officer Travis Gayles said his department has launched roughly 50 contact investigations at private and parochial schools since mid-August, which cumulatively identified at least 15 schools with positive cases. But Gayles has not released the name of any school, citing privacy and ongoing investigations.
A string of classes had to quarantine. Health officials classified one outbreak as “extensive,” with a large volume of potential contacts. At one Catholic school, a teacher tested positive, the class was quarantined — and then a student tested positive, according to the Archdiocese of Washington.
The Montgomery County school system, Maryland’s largest, with more than 160,000 students, remains in a distance-learning mode, without students on campus. Nonetheless, employees who have returned to school grounds have tested positive: more than 60 between March and Sept. 10. Officials have closed eight school buildings and one maintenance depot for cleaning and sanitizing, according to Onijala, the spokeswoman for the school system.
Some have urged that data be fully disclosed and easily accessed.
“I believe the public has a need to know and a right to know, and there’s no need to have people speculate or jump through hoops . . . when this is a matter of public health,” said Patricia O’Neill, a Montgomery County Board of Education member.
Schools in Prince George’s County, which are also in all-virtual learning, required an open-records request before officials would produce any information about employees who tested positive or schools that have seen cases. A request filed by The Washington Post is pending.
In this environment, the Archdiocese of Washington may stand out: When asked, it has released the names of parish schools that experienced a case. The archdiocese began opening campuses in August; since then, it has confirmed positive cases at three schools — two in Maryland and one on Capitol Hill.
Maryland House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said school officials must balance between the need for transparency with legitimate privacy concerns. He warned against the possibility of fostering “covid stigma,” but said that the state should set a standard for sharing information and that schools should be identified.
“We report in detail test scores for schools,” he said. “Why can’t we report coronavirus cases?”
A spokesman from the governor’s office, Michael Ricci, said in an email that state and local health officers have discussed standardizing case data for schools, but some school systems raised privacy concerns.
In Virginia, as the bill requiring school reporting works its way closer to becoming law, school districts are taking varying approaches.
In Alexandria City Public Schools, which serves 16,000 students, little information is public. Asked how many employees and students had tested positive for the virus, spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said the division did not “have a data source for this information.” Asked whether it planned to track and publish cases, Lloyd said “this would not be our remit.” Alexandria city government officials referred all questions back to the school system.
Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said 11.7 percent of school staff have “been excluded from work due to COVID health and safety procedures,” and noted that this statistic is published on the system’s coronavirus dashboard.
Bellavia said Arlington has no data on any of its 28,000 students because the school system is offering online-only learning. He refused to say how many schools within Arlington have seen cases of the virus, calling building-level data “private health information.” Bellavia said Arlington officials notify only “relevant classes/schools/or individual[s]” of coronavirus cases, and do not publish a countywide alert.
Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said the school system of 189,000 students has identified 26 cases — all employees — since March. She noted that officials made this data available to the public in a Sept. 22 school board report.
Cases within Fairfax are self-reported to school officials, Caldwell said, which she admitted means “we might not have a complete figure” of coronavirus cases. When the school system becomes aware of a case, it notifies the Fairfax County Health Department, which conducts contact tracing. The school system also notifies “school communities [and] families in conjunction with health department coordination,” Caldwell said.
In an interview, Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand said he would like to see a statewide database tracking coronavirus cases at schools. The Virginia Health Department on Monday took a step in that direction, debuting a website that allows users to inspect “14-day case incidence” and “14-day percent positivity” by school district — but does not reveal the case count at individual schools.
“The bottom line is we want to build transparency and trust,” Brabrand said. “I think the state building a dashboard mechanism for schools is the way to go.”
Loudoun, meanwhile, is continuing with its internal tracking and notification processes. The school has identified 105 cases of the virus since campuses shut down, spokesman Rob Doolittle said, including 99 staffers, three nonstaff visitors and three students. Doolittle also provided a three-page PDF listing every Loudoun coronavirus case, the school affiliation of the infected individual and the last day that person visited school property.
Williams, the Loudoun superintendent, said the decision to rigorously compile and publish coronavirus data was “immediate and natural,” agreed upon months ago informally — and unanimously — by himself, his top staff and members of the school board.
Williams conceded that the data may have “limited practical value” for most Loudoun families and staffers given campuses have remained closed, and mostly unused, since March.
“But symbolically, we felt it was important,” he said. “And by now people don’t really think about it one way or the other: It’s expected, that’s how we proceed, and that’s how we’re going to proceed.”
The pandemic school year
Students, guardians and teachers experience a very different school year as the coronavirus disrupts the country’s education system.
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