FARGO — North Dakota’s pandemic plan allows schools to alert the public about positive COVID-19 cases after classes begin, but many schools statewide have decided they will not do so.
The state will compile data about how many students, staff and instructors contract COVID-19 within a public K-12 school, but it will be up to the individual school districts to distribute that information to the public, according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said in a statement that disclosing the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools is important, but "it must also be done in a manner that protects the private health information of all individuals."
State and federal laws say non-identifying information about the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools can be released to the public. According to the 35-page North Dakota Healthy Return to Learning plan, no FERPA or HIPAA laws would be broken if schools announced case numbers, though schools are advised to only disclose "the minimum amount of information required to address the issue at hand."
FERPA, which stands for the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, and HIPAA, which stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, are laws protecting the privacy of student education and health records.
Baesler said the state is working to develop a plan to release statewide COVID-19 school data to the public on a regular basis. She did not say whether the data would be broken down by school or district.
North Dakota will not hold mass testing events for schools, though individual districts may do so, said Sarah Massey, a Department of Health school health specialist in an Aug. 25 online question-and-answer session.
Massey said the results generated from mass testing events would not be entirely efficient, as they can take up to 72 hours to get back to a person and by the time results come back, they may no longer be accurate.
If parents wish to have their children tested for COVID-19 and their school does not put on mass testing events, they may attend local testing events held by the health department or other health care entities, Massey said.
While area public school districts aren’t notifying the public about positive cases, at least two universities are. North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota both offer information on their websites that allows the public to find information about COVID-19 cases on campus.
As of Friday, Aug. 28, NDSU had 41 total confirmed positive cases (39 students and 2 employees) reported, with 56 students in quarantine in university housing. The same day, UND had 308 positive cases that were self-reported, with 656 faculty, staff and students under quarantine. A total of 295 students, 12 staff members and two faculty tested positive for COVID-19.
Fargo Public Schools will focus on notifying those directly involved when a positive case is discovered, and that information will be relayed to state and local health authorities, said AnnMarie Campbell, district spokesperson.
“At this point we would be focusing on notifying the folks that the case may have impacted, close contacts, families of students. At this current moment we don’t have in our protocols that we would send out a media release, not to say we wouldn’t get there, but at this moment we are focusing on solely notifying the folks that we need to,” Campbell said.
“If we would change the instructional plan level for our school or our district, then we would send that out to the community at large,” Campbell said.
An outbreak inside a school would also most likely change the instructional plan level, or threat level, and that information would be released to the public, Campbell said.
Moorhead Area Public Schools will be following a similar protocol, said Brenda Richman, executive director of public relations. She said alerting the public will be left up to the state’s department of health.
“As a district we are working closely with the state and county health departments and we will adhere to the FERPA and HIPAA expectations of school districts. We are required to report confirmed cases to the state and the state will make any public aggregate reporting that is necessary,” Richman said.
Scott Smith with the Minnesota Department of Health said he wasn’t sure what the protocol was for alerting the public about COVID-19 cases in Minnesota schools.
“I think the policy hasn’t been totally worked out yet,” Smith said Thursday afternoon, Aug. 27.
The West Fargo School District also will not be alerting the public if and when the district discovers a case of COVID-19, adding that state or local health officials will contact those who came in close contact, which is considered a total of 15 minutes over a period of one day.
“In all situations, but especially in the midst of a pandemic, it is important for organizations and people to stay in their lanes. Community-wide notifications of COVID-19 cases are not the district’s lane; we are not healthcare experts, medical providers, or epidemiologists. That information should be tracked and shared by those who truly understand the ins and outs of COVID data… and that is not WFPS,” said Heather Leas, public relations coordinator for West Fargo Public Schools.
“Please do not take my response to mean that WFPS has any intention of hiding the status of COVID in our district; we absolutely anticipate requests to come from the community (our media partners are one example) that we will be happy to fulfill. While we have nothing to hide, we also can’t be looked upon as the sole/official source of this type of information.”
When a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, state and local health departments are notified and an investigation takes place as to how they contracted the illness and who they may have been in contact with, Massey said in the Aug. 25 Q&A. Within each individual school, there is a "point of contact" who will communicate with the health department to determine what classes the individual was in and who they may have interacted with.
"We are working to protect everybody’s health information ... we will only be giving that information on a need-to-know basis," Massey said.
Baesler said the Department of Public Instruction understands the need for parents and communities to stay informed.
“We ask for your grace and patience while we work toward the best options for disclosing meaningful information to North Dakotans about the presence of COVID-19 in their schools while protecting the medical privacy of our students, educators, and staff," Baesler said in a statement.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com