Idaho school districts vary widely in COVID-19 transparency
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho school districts vary widely when it comes to letting the public know about coronavirus cases in classrooms.
An investigation by the Idaho Statesman reveals that school districts across southwestern Idaho have wide-ranging levels of transparency when it comes to the number of COVID-19 cases in local schools. Some notify the public of each case in each school, while others only provide that information at the district level. Others don't track coronavirus cases at all, instead relying on the local health department to do it.
The Boise-area newspaper sent public record requests to districts across the Treasure Valley asking for the number of COVID-19 cases and related quarantines in each school. The newspaper did not ask for any personally identifiable information. Officials with the West Ada School District — the largest in Idaho — claimed federal privacy laws prevented them from sharing coronavirus case counts with the public.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” West Ada spokesperson Char Jackson said. “We just have students’ privacy at the forefront of all of this.”
But guidance from two federal agencies says the laws cited by West Ada do not prohibit schools from providing statistics. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (commonly called HIPAA) do not apply to schools. And the U.S. Department of Education wrote in March that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act doesn't prevent schools from releasing details about COVID-19 cases — as long as the information is not personally identifiable.
“For example,” the Department of Education wrote, “if an educational agency or institution releases the fact that individuals are absent due to COVID-19 (but does not disclose their identities), this would generally not be considered personally identifiable to the absent students under FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) as long as there are other individuals at the educational agency or institution who are absent for other reasons.”
The federal agency also says revealing the identity of some cases is allowable during a health emergency, such as if an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 and the school needs to notify the parents of teammates.
The Nampa School District, which is the state's third-largest district with 14,000 students, also only provides coronavirus numbers at the district level. The district started the school year online, but students began attending in-person classes twice a week on Monday.
The Vallivue School District initially provided the number of positive coronavirus test results by school, but earlier this month began only providing case counts at the district level. Superintendent Pat Charlton said the district won't inform its own employees of the location of coronavirus cases either.
The Boise School District, meanwhile, regularly publishes a spreadsheet tracking the number of cases by school on its district website. It also publishes internal and external communications notifying parents and staffers of cases. The Kuna School District also publishes updates on new cases online.
“They don’t identify individuals,” said Boise School District spokesman Dan Hollar. “They are just talking about a case. We’re going to make sure we don’t release any information that could identify an individual.”
Three school districts — Middleton, Payette and Fruitland — said they could not provide case counts because they did not have any records tracking them.
Payette and Fruitland are in Payette County, the only county in Idaho still in the red category of community spread, the highest in Idaho’s back-to-school guidelines. Both districts are holding in-person classes.
“There’s so much uncertainty for parents and educators right now about sending kids back to school, in-person and safely,” said Melissa Davlin, the chairwoman for the Idaho Press Club’s First Amendment Committee. “The more information we have as members of the public, the better informed we can be when we make these decisions.”