Knox County Schools will make the number of active COVID-19 cases within the district public through an online dashboard that will be updated daily. But administrators will not reveal cases by school, the district and county health department announced Friday evening in a joint statement.
The district’s website will host a dashboard that lists districtwide cases and the number of isolated or quarantined people. It will include information about the district’s metrics outlined in its reopening plan, including attendance rates and how much schools are relying on substitute teachers. The dashboard will go live Monday.
Knox County Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington defended the district’s decision to not release specific school data, saying it could identify sick individuals, a violation of health privacy protections.
“We are committed to providing timely information to individuals who have potentially been exposed to COVID-19,” Harrington said in an email to Knox News.
She said the school system is constrained by provisions of state and federal health mandates, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, commonly referred to as HIPAA.
“With that in mind, we will only be able to share limited data about cases in our district at this time,” Harrington said. “This information, as well as the metrics KCS and KCHD are monitoring, will be available on the school district’s website.”
The announcement comes a day after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said the state has reached out to the federal government to find out what COVID-19 school information it can share.
On Tuesday, Lee and other state officials said federal privacy laws prevent the state from reporting confirmed cases by school or school district.
That’s at odds with the practices of several public school systems. Hamilton County Schools has a COVID-19 district dashboard with COVID-19 counts, Putnam County Schools has a dashboard that breaks down COVID-19 counts by school and Maryville City Schools notifies every family of a case discovered at a school.
KCS has not said whether everyone associated with a school will be told if a COVID-19 case is found in that school.
At Maryville City Schools, people who came into close contact with a sick person are given specific instructions and everyone in the school is notified, district health coordinator Heather Ledbetter told Knox News.
Additionally, everyone in the school system learns if the case was a student or staff member, the grade level of the student and sometimes the specific class.
Ledbetter said transparency is vital and that having a school nurse in every school is a strength of Maryville public schools.
KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas, who came under fire for a lack of communication as the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the school system in March, vowed to be better at communicating at a June school board meeting. Ultimately, the board decided to extend his contract by one year. The district’s reopening plan and a COVID-19 community task force also emphasized the importance of communication.
Yet Friday’s announcement comes just days before over 41,000 students return to school buildings. Over 18,000 students, almost a third of the student population, will use the district’s virtual option.
Bearden High School and Karns High School already have shut down their football teams for two weeks. Bearden shut down amidst COVID-19 concerns; Karns hasn’t said what prompted its shutdown.
Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Knox News that knowing the number of cases in a school is only a first step.
“The more people who are infected in a school — in truth, which is different from how many we know about — but the number of truly infected people in a school determines the level of risk of transmission within a school because each case is a potential source,” he said.
Multiple cases in a school doesn’t mean those people all got it from transmission in the school. That’s why Lipsitch said investigations are important.
“If we can understand of all the places that might have outbreaks, which ones do and what they’re doing or not doing, it can help us improve practices everywhere else and learn from our mistakes,” he said.
That’s where contact tracing comes in — the process of identifying those who have been exposed to a COVID-19 patient and telling them to quarantine. Knox County Health Department director Dr. Martha Buchanan said Tuesday that contact tracing will be “challenging” once schools reopen but the department has protocols in place to overcome the challenge.
The district’s reopening plan says it will notify health officials if KCS learns of a positive COVID-19 case. It also says the two groups will work together to contact trace and those affected will be notified while maintaining confidentiality of the sick person. KCS will notify employees when someone tests positive for COVID-19, according to an employee FAQ document on the district site.
Knox County Schools start Monday.
Knox News is tracking COVID-19 in schools. If you receive a notification from your child’s school, please send an email to Isabel Lohman with the number of positive cases and additional information your child’s school provides. You can let Knox News know you want to help by filling out our Google Form. We will not share your identity or personal information.