Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday his administration is in the process of creating a plan that would allow schools to share information about the number of COVID-19 cases in their facilities.
“We’re working a plan to in fact be able to report school cases,” he said during an afternoon media briefing.
The governor’s comments come just days after officials with the state Department of Health said the agency would not ask for and collect data on the number of cases and deaths at each school.
When Lee announced guidance for school reopenings last week, state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said Tennessee had no plans to provide the public with such data.
Instead, Piercey said the data sharing would be left up to individual school districts.
One day later, a spokesperson for the departments cited patient privacy as a priority while defending the decision.
But on Tuesday, the governor reversed course.
“We’re developing a plan for reporting cases in schools,” he said. “I believe that we have to protect privacy but we also have to be transparent.”
Lee said within the next week, his administration will present a plan aimed at “being more transparent” on the school data.
The issue over COVID-19 data collection and schools comes months after the Tennessee Department of Health and the Lee administration twice faced criticism for initially refusing to release certain information. The previous refusals related to reporting county-level deaths and cases at nursing homes.
Democrats and Deborah Fisher, an open government advocate, criticized the administration’s initial refusal to collect and release school data.
The issue over COVID-19 data at schools comes as students begin to head back to classrooms across the state. As they do, at least 14 COVID-19 cases in schools have been confirmed as the administration stresses in-person classes. As a result, some districts, including most recently Blount County Schools, have adopted a hybrid model that would allow a mixture of in-person and virtual learning.
Despite the latest plan to reverse course on releasing data, Lee defended his administration as one that remains transparent.
“This pandemic is something that none of us has faced before,” he said, noting COVID-19 has presented the state with a multitude of issues for the first time. He again stressed the need to balance transparency without jeopardizing individuals’ privacy.
Releasing total numbers, however, would not jeopardize anyone’s privacy, unless such totals were low.
Also on Tuesday, Lee defended his administration’s overall approach on the pandemic. In recent weeks, Democrats have blasted the administration, calling for a new strategy.
On numerous occasions, including Tuesday, Lee has said nothing is off the table when it comes to combating COVID-19. Yet he’s ruled out a statewide mandatory mask mandate, closing bars, limiting dining in restaurants and shutting the state’s economy down a second time.
Instead, the administration has expanded testing, launched a public service campaign and urged Tennesseans to do their part.
In the last month, COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in Tennessee, moving beyond the state’s urban areas into rural places, generating high daily case counts while deaths have surpassed 1,000.
“We’re implementing the things that we think are appropriate responses to the spread of the virus,” the governor said. “I have from the beginning tried to be one who looks at where we are and have changed positions at times based on the spread of the virus or the caseload in a community.”
Meghan Mangrum contributed to this report.
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Reach Joel Ebert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.