Students have returned to many Treasure Valley classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic, and those still learning online plan to return soon.
But the number of COVID-19 cases in Idaho’s schools remains a mystery to many parents, teachers and the public.
The Idaho Statesman spent the past month filing public records requests with school districts across the Treasure Valley, finding wide-ranging levels of transparency among local schools.
Some notify the public of each case in each school. Others only provide that data at the district level, claiming privacy laws tie their hands. And others said they are not tracking cases, instead relying on the local health departments to do it.
“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.”
WEST ADA SCHOOLS WON’T SHARE COVID-19 CASES
The West Ada School District started sending its 40,000 students back to classrooms Monday on an alternating schedule. But Idaho’s largest school district will not publicly report the number of cases in each of its 57 schools like its neighbor in Boise does.
It said privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevented it from sharing 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 those laws do not prohibit schools from providing statistics. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says HIPAA’s privacy rules do not apply to schools. And the U.S. Department of Education wrote in March that FERPA does not prevent schools from releasing details about COVID-19 cases — as long as the information is not personally identifiable.
The Statesman asked for no identifiable information beyond the number of cases and quarantines in each school.
“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 as long as there are other individuals at the educational agency or institution who are absent for other reasons.”
It added revealing the identity of some cases is allowable during a health emergency. It cited the example of a wrestler testing positive and the school needing to notify the parents of other wrestlers so they could take safety precautions.
That exemption allows West Ada to notify close contacts of positive cases — those within 6 feet for 15 minutes — they may have been exposed, said Tracey Garner, West Ada’s supervisor of health services. She added West Ada recently expanded its notifications to wider groups; for example, all members of a football team or students in a specific classroom.
But she said West Ada will not notify every parent in a school about a positive case.
“West Ada feels it is the best interest of patrons to notify those that need to know, and it’s how we will proceed going forward,” Garner said. “We will be direct, transparent and straightforward with those who need to know.”
West Ada told the Statesman 34 students and staff across its district have tested positive for the coronavirus from Aug. 1 to Thursday morning. But it would not provide statistics by each school because it believes someone could figure out who tested positive, making it personally identifiable information.
“If you’re suggesting five students at Rocky Mountain had COVID, it could be discoverable which five students had a communicable disease,” Garner said.
The Statesman’s lawyer disagrees with West Ada’s interpretation of protected information under FERPA.
“You can’t say the 13-year-old on the tennis team who lives on Main Street tested positive in the Boise School District,” said Kersti Kennedy of Boise’s Givens Pursley LLP. “But I don’t see anything in this law that prevents providing the number of infected students.”
West Ada’s lack of public reporting even led to confusion among its own school board. Board chairman Ed Klopfenstein wrote to West Ada’s superintendent Aug. 17 about a report he heard from “a fairly high-up official in the Boise School District,” detailing dozens of cases in West Ada’s athletic programs. Klopfenstein provided specific numbers for three high schools.
Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells dismissed the numbers the next day, writing, “It appears gossip and rumor have taken over.” She confirmed athletes and coaches have tested positive for the coronavirus but did not say how many or where.
Jackson added West Ada has no plans to publicly publish the number of cases at the district level. It provided them to the Statesman after the newspaper filed multiple public records requests.
During the course of the reporting for this article, West Ada twice violated Idaho law by failing to respond to the Statesman’s requests in the time required.
The Idaho Public Records Act requires public agencies to produce a record or a reason for denial within 10 working days. West Ada didn’t provide a reason for its denial until Thursday morning — 18 working days after the Statesman’s first request and 12 working days after the second.
NAMPA, VALLIVUE RELEASE PARTIAL DATA
West Ada is not alone in only providing cases at the district level. The Nampa School District, the state’s third largest with 14,000 students, follows the same path.
Nampa provided a report to the Statesman that broke down 12 reported COVID-19 cases through Sept. 4 by employees and students. It even broke out athletes as a category. But it said it does not track cases by school building, in response to a public records request.
All Nampa students started the year online. Students will attend in-person classes two days a week starting Monday.
Meanwhile, the Vallivue School District reversed course on publicly reporting cases.
Vallivue provided the number of positive test results by school to the Statesman on Aug. 28 after starting in-person classes Aug. 25 against Southwest District Health’s guidance. It also listed schools with cases in a letter to parents Sept. 4, which Vallivue Superintendent Pat Charlton later confirmed to the Statesman.
But on Sept. 10, Vallivue denied a request for the same information, deciding it would only provide case counts at the district level from now on. Charlton added the district would no longer inform its own employees of the location of cases either.
Like West Ada, Charlton cited FERPA’s privacy protections, writing the number of cases by school “may allow a third party to identify a student.”
“We feel that we must prioritize the personal privacy of our students and staff and adherence to federal law over your desire to publish information that could be construed as personal medical information,” he wrote.
BOISE SCHOOLS COMMITTED TO TRANSPARENCY
Not all Treasure Valley schools believe case numbers identify individual students. Many provided statistics upon request. But the Boise School District remains the gold standard for transparency on COVID-19 cases.
The Statesman began filing public records requests with Boise in early August when teachers returned to their classrooms and cases started popping up. But those are no longer necessary as Boise publishes a spreadsheet tracking the number of cases by school on its district website.
It updates the website when it learns of new cases. It also publishes internal and external communications notifying staff and parents of cases.
Boise Schools spokesperson Dan Hollar said sharing the number of cases does not violate any privacy laws.
“They don’t identify individuals,” Hollar said. “They are just talking about a case. We’re going to make sure we don’t release any information that could identify an individual.”
Boise started classes fully online Aug. 17 and will send the first of its 25,000 students back to part-time, in-person classes Monday. As of Friday afternoon, it reported 15 confirmed and probable cases tied to nine school buildings since Aug. 17.
“We know information is key for people to provide them with a sense of confidence and assurance,” Hollar said. “We recognize COVID is already having an impact on schools. We want to make sure we are focused on the safety and security of students and staff.
“… We think we need to be transparent in that regard, and we are committed to that transparency going forward.”
The Kuna School District (5,600 students) also doesn’t believe reporting the number of cases violates privacy laws. It sends out weekly updates on new cases via email and Facebook. It also posts the letters to the district website.
As of Friday afternoon, Kuna reported three confirmed cases and one probable case at three schools since starting in-person classes Aug. 31 against Central District Health recommendations. It even released that a second grader tested positive at Crimson Point Elementary.
Kuna spokesperson Allison Westfall said none of the information is individually identifiable. And she added publicly disclosing cases provides the district with another benefit.
“When you’re transparent about information, it helps dispel rumors,” Westfall said.
The Emmett, Weiser, Homedale, Melba and Wilder districts, and Liberty Charter and Legacy Charter schools, have provided the Statesman with cases by individual school upon request. Parma, New Plymouth, Marsing, Notus and Idaho Arts Charter said they had no cases to report before Labor Day, the time frame requested of them.
Caldwell asked for an extension, which it is entitled to under the Idaho Public Records Act. That extension expires Tuesday.
SCHOOLS IN HOT SPOTS NOT TRACKING CASES
Three school districts — Middleton, Payette and Fruitland — said they could not provide case counts to the Statesman because they did not have any records tracking them.
Red comes with a recommendation to move all classes online. But Payette and Fruitland are open for in-person classes. Payette opened to students four days a week Aug. 25. Fruitland’s students returned to classrooms four days a week on Thursday.
Payette football and volleyball players have tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the quarantine of both teams. And multiple Payette employees have gone into quarantine, according to news reports. But Payette business manager and board clerk Barbara Choate said the district isn’t tracking any of its own cases, so it could not provide any numbers to the Statesman.
“We are not currently keeping any statistics ourselves,” she wrote. “Southwest District Health is tracking the data for us in order to provide medical privacy to the staff, students and families.”
Fruitland Superintendent Lyle Bayley also wrote his district relies on Southwest District Health to track its cases in his denial of the Statesman’s records request.
HEALTH DISTRICTS NOT PROVIDING SCHOOL INFO, EITHER
The local public health districts covering the Treasure Valley — Boise-based Central and Caldwell-based Southwest — also refused to provide COVID-19 cases by school building.
Mike Kane, a lawyer for both health districts, wrote in August providing cases by school would be a “geographical identifier” that would leave the health districts vulnerable to potential lawsuits under HIPAA. HIPAA’s privacy rules can apply to local health districts.
“Once the (health) district begins identifying individual schools, we would be in direct violation of federal law regarding giving out personal identifying information as to geographical identifiers smaller than a state,” Kane wrote.
But Idaho’s health districts have identified cases tied to other locations, such as downtown Boise bars and long-term care facilities. Central and Southwest district health publish case counts by city and county on their websites. And Southwest publishes weekly case rates by zip codes.
Kane also cited exemptions listed under Idaho’s public records law that allow health districts to withhold records “that identify a person infected with a reportable disease.”
The Statesman asked the health departments for no identifiable information beyond the number of cases in a school.
The lack of school-related information extends to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state health department publishes a weekly report on the number of cases in long-term care facilities. But it has not done the same for schools.
Christine Hahn, a state epidemiologist, said Idaho was working on a plan for reporting cases in schools at a press conference Aug. 21. Four weeks later, it has yet to publicly produce any report.
“It’s ongoing,” Hahn said in August. “I wish we were ahead of where we’re at. But we’re still trying to sort that out and get a final plan together.”
Health and Welfare recently began providing a more thorough report on cases by age, breaking children into age groups of 0 to 4, 5 to 12 and 13 to 17. It previously lumped all children together.
As of Thursday, Idaho reported 3,607 cases in children under 18 since March, including 1,823 in children 13 to 17 years old, 1,115 in children 5 to 12 years old and 669 in children 0 to 4 years old.
Children under 18 accounted for 9.9% of Idaho’s 36,489 statewide cases with demographic information.
Collecting school-related data, however, has proven challenging, Health and Welfare spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr wrote Thursday in an email. Initial case reports include a patient’s residence, which makes identifying those living in long-term care facilities straightforward.
But those reports don’t collect what school a child attends. Local health districts don’t learn that information until they conduct a case investigation. And a parent must agree to provide that information, Forbing-Orr wrote.
“The short answer is that we are working on it,” Forbing-Orr wrote in an email.