Published 5:16 PM EDT Sep 3, 2020
After flip-flopping for more than a month on whether releasing such data violates federal privacy laws, Gov. Bill Lee and the state of Tennessee are finally publicly reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases linked to schools.
The Tennessee Department of Education will launch a new dashboard on Tuesday that will include the total number of active cases among students and staff broken down by school across the state.
The department will update the dashboard every Monday with the previous week’s number of new cases and will include classroom or school closures and whether students are learning in-person, remotely or a hybrid of both for each district.
“Parents and community members are working to make informed decisions, and we have determined the best path that balances informed decision making with our obligation to student privacy,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a statement. “We believe this resource will not only help parents but will inform how COVID-19 is affecting student attendance, chronic absenteeism and overall student attainment.”
PREVIOUSLY: Tennessee refuses to release information about COVID-19 cases in schools
Lee, Schwinn and state Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey have all been criticized for not publicly reporting information on COVID-19 cases in schools. All have previously cited federal privacy law restrictions, like HIPAA and FERPA, for preventing the release of the information.
“The real challenge is to provide as much information as possible to provide for transparency and to give information that is important to the public but continue to provide and adhere to privacy restrictions that FERPA and HIPAA require,” Lee said previously. “And that’s a balance.”
Lee acknowledged Thursday there is wide desire among parents for data that will help them make informed decisions about whether to send their children to school or not. Developing a dashboard to meet these needs appropriately was a process, Lee said during a news briefing.
“We believe (the dashboard) will help parents make choices, but it won’t compromise our commitment to parents and to students and to teachers,” Lee said. “It’s uncharted territory. Most states are still grappling with this, but we think we have developed a tool that will be helpful in determining not only how many cases are in a school but also how it affects attendance, chronic absenteeism and even academic outcomes among our students.”
Nearly 200 COVID-19 cases linked to schools have been reported across the state since the first school districts in Tennessee reopened in late July, many prompting quarantines of students and staff and even temporary school closures.
Dozens of school districts scrambled to launch their own online dashboards or other methods to report the number of positive cases among staff and students, how many individuals were in isolation or quarantine and school closures.
Several states are already reporting or have committed to reporting the number of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, including Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and Texas.
BY THE NUMBERS: These Tennessee school districts are already reporting COVID-19 cases after reopening
COVID-19 IN SCHOOLS: How should districts notify parents about confirmed COVID-19 cases in their child’s school?
Schwinn said that the majority of state reporting efforts are being led by state health departments — the Tennessee Department of Education is the first to report cases in schools itself.
The commissioner has been under fire in recent weeks from a group of lawmakers and some school district leaders over the education department’s handling of the pandemic.
From what information to report about confirmed cases to what safety guidance to follow in classrooms, some school leaders say the department has not given clear, consistent guidance.
Lee released the state’s school reopening guidance on July 28 — days after some Tennessee school districts had already reopened. Initially, he and Piercey said that neither the education or health departments would be tracking or reporting COVID-19 cases in schools. He later announced that the state would work on a plan for reporting such data.
Just a week later, Lee reversed course again and said the state would not release the data. After that, Lee said the state was contacting federal officials about what it could release.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, has consistently argued the public has the right to know what’s happening in schools. She acknowledged that districts might be worried that if they release school data, people will use it to try to identify infected people.
“It all comes down to, ‘Are we somehow identifying that Joe Smith in third grade has COVID-19?” Fisher said.
But privacy concerns are also dueling with the public’s right to know, Fisher said.
“That has to be weighed with the need for the public to know what’s happening in the schools,” she said. “People don’t want to make decisions about their kids in the dark.”
RELATED: House to hold special hearing on school return as legislators, conservative activists raise concerns about Commissioner Schwinn
MORE: Tennessee Department of Education launches dashboard to track school closings due to coronavirus
The state’s new dashboard will be maintained by education department officials and school districts will be expected to update the department weekly. The state will not report specific case numbers for schools with less than 50 students enrolled — there are less than 40 of those statewide — and will not report the specific number of cases if the active case number is less than five.
The education department routinely redacts student demographic or test data when it only applies to small numbers of students as a way to protect privacy.
Department officials anticipate local school districts will likely still have the most up-to-date information on active cases in their schools and encourage families and community members to continue to reach out to local districts for more information.
The Tennessean and the USA Today Network – Tennessee is also keeping track of COVID-19 cases in schools across Tennessee.
Find out if cases have been reported in your local school by searching our statewide database or report suspected cases yourself using our statewide database.
COVID-19: Search and report cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee schools
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Reporter Isabel Lohman contributed to this story.
Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.