COVID-19 in Classrooms: What should Tucson schools share with the public?

Fact Finders: HIPPA in schools

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Two Tucson schools have closed in the last week due to COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

The Tucson Unified School District said Erickson Elementary closed on August 25 after a student in the KIDCO program housed at the school tested positive for COVID-19. Students attending Erickson’s on-campus learning spaces will move to remote learning during the quarantine period.

That information was released about a week after Tolson Elementary was closed when two staff members tested positive for the virus. No students were on campus at the time of that incident.

The district will work with the Pima County Health Department to determine action when a COVID-19 case is reported, but you may not hear about one if it doesn’t require a closure.

The TUSD spokesperson cited HIPAA and ADA privacy issues as the reason why district will not be releasing cases per school or site if it doesn’t require a closure or PCHD does not indicate a need for a notification.

“If they’re not helping to keep the virus in check, they are exposing the whole community,” said Tara Sklar, Professor of Health Law and Director of the Health Law & Policy Program at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.

Sklar said schools often fall on federal laws, like HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and FERPA,the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, to withhold information from the public.

“I think it takes away from this bigger picture in how we want to protect our employees, our students and our communities,” said Sklar. “Schools have a role in curtailing the spread of the virus and they should act proactively, not in this sort of defensive nature.”

Sklar said HIPAA does not apply to schools. While de-identifying is appropriate, you can protect privacy and be transparent about the number of COVID-19 cases.

“It’s healthcare providers, doctors and hospitals. It’s healthcare plans, the insurers or related business associates. As you can see from this description, a school does not meet this criteria,” said Sklar.

The professor pointed to how pressure was put on nursing homes and the lack of information from the state on cases at the beginning of the pandemic.

Once districts open their doors to all students, parents will still have the option to keep them in remote learning. Sklar said that decision could be a difficult one to make if information isn’t being shared.

“They can’t make an informed decision if they don’t know if the school is properly communicating how many cases may or may not be happening on campus and if there are cases, how the school is responding to it,” said Sklar.

According to the Pima County Health Department’s guidelines districts, it’s recommended schools have a process, compliant with FERPA and other applicable regulations and reviewed by school and district officials, as to how and when to notify students, families, employees and local health departments.

While the law applies to protecting information relating to a student’s educational record, Sklar said there is an exemption that would allow a COVID-19 case to be shared.

“In that law, there is specifically a health and safety exemption that says to protect the health of students or other individuals, you can disclose information,” said Sklar.

The TUSD spokesperson said if the case or cases require closure or notification, per PCHD direction, the district will share all the information and notification for all school staff and families.

“At the key of it is transparency, it’s information sharing and it’s coordination,” said Sklar. “And not trying to hide behind laws that don’t apply in the first place.”

The ADA is the American Disabilities Act. It is about ensuring reasonable accommodation, protection from discrimination and more. Sklar said the act does not prohibit schools from reporting de-identified information about COVID-19 cases.

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