State leaders plan to provide greater public disclosure of positive coronavirus cases at K-12 schools across Louisiana by creating a disease surveillance system.
This joint effort of the Louisiana Department of Health and Department of Education was first announced by Gov. John Bel Edwards during a press conference Tuesday evening. It's meant to provide greater transparency to concerned family and school employees, according to a joint statement issued Wednesday by the two state agencies.
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The move comes as schools across the state, both public and private, struggle in deciding whether to notify whole school communities of positive cases, or just those students most likely to be affected. As of Tuesday, 35 public school districts in Louisiana were offering at least some in-person instruction as they reopen for the 2020-21 school year.
With limited guidance from the state, administrators have been trying in varying ways to balance transparency with medical privacy. What's emerged has been a hodgepodge of practices across schools and districts. It's left some parents and employees confused and upset.
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Immediate details on the new surveillance system were scarce, as officials said they are still in the planning phases. But officials said the system would allow the state, local schools and school districts to "efficiently report relevant COVID-19 data in schools for greater public visibility."
"We recognize the importance of making this information available and are working to have it in place as soon as possible," read the statement, sent by Ted Beasley, the communications director for the state's education department.
In his press conference, Edwards said the state's health department will also be working with colleges and universities to make sure they are making COVID-19 data public, too.
"We want people to have confidence in what we’re doing. And what we know is that if you are not sharing data, quickly and transparently, then that undermines confidence," the governor said.
Currently, the Louisiana Department of Health directs schools to notify only close contacts of someone who tested positive so they can ask them to quarantine, while keeping identities of those who are sick secret.
Many schools are notifying no one beyond close contacts, unless the outbreak is bad enough to force entire classrooms to move online, or, at worst, to close the entire school building. Other schools are sending out schoolwide notifications after any reported infection.
Close contact is narrowly defined by the CDC as anyone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, up to two days prior to the infected person learning they tested positive. Schools have been working with regional officials in the state's Office of Public Health to do contact tracing.
The current guidelines could mean a student who shares the same classroom with someone who gets COVID-19 wouldn't be notified, as long as officials determine that they never had close enough contact with each other.
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In the Baton Rouge area, school leaders in Central and West Baton Rouge told The Advocate last week they are largely limiting coronavirus notifications to those most affected. School leaders in Zachary, and Ascension and Livingston parishes, by contrast, are sending out schoolwide alerts after new infections.
Upon determining that a student is a close contact with the infected individual, the Louisiana Department of Health is also sending out notification letters to their parents with details on how to quarantine themselves.
When asked why they won't share more information, some schools have pointed to federal privacy laws. These laws limit who can see and receive an individual's health information.
For example, when a child gets lice, parents of students who share a class with that student will likely get a letter sent home warning about exposure, but under federal rules the letter shouldn't divulge the name of the student who got it.
However, recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has erred on the side of more information.
In an Aug. 1 brief designed to prepare school administrators for the fall reopening of schools, the CDC explicitly said private and public schools should have "regular communication with families, staff, and other partners" about the status of COVID-19 in "the school and community."
That includes notification of when there are COVID-19 cases in the school, as long as the administration is careful to follow federal privacy laws and not identify specific students who are sick.