Tennessee refuses to release information about COVID-19 cases in schools

Tennessee will not publicly report the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases linked to schools despite Gov. Bill Lee’s previous commitment to create such a plan, state officials said Tuesday.

On Aug. 4, Lee said his administration was in the process of creating a plan that would allow schools to share information about the number of COVID-19 cases in their facilities.

The governor’s commitment came 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.

The Tennessee Department of Education released a dashboard last week that provides information on each of the state’s nearly 140 school districts, including the date of the district’s first day of school, any school closures and whether students are learning in person, remotely or a mix of both.

The Tennessee Department of Health also began reporting data on cases among school-aged children, or children aged 5-18, on its website Tuesday but the data is only broken down by county.

PREVIOUSLY: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee now says state working on plan to publicly share COVID-19 data from schools

RELATED: How should districts notify parents about confirmed COVID-19 cases in their child’s school?

Both Lee and Public Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey continues to argue that federal privacy laws like HIPPA and FERPA prevent the state from reporting confirmed cases by school or school districts, but some counties have more than one school district within its boundaries.

Some districts even straddle county lines or allow students who are residents of other counties to attend. The school-aged data is not officially linked to schools, nor is any adult data that is already released by the state. 

But by releasing only school-age data, there is no way for the public to know whether cases came as a direct result of a school, as opposed to children who might have contracted the virus through family or friends. In addition, there would be no way to know whether outbreaks have occurred among teachers or staff or for parents to track if cases are increasing rapidly in their child’s school or school district. 

Lee’s administration has continuously emphasized parents and families rights to choose whether to send their children to school in-person or keep them home amid the coronavirus pandemic, while also pressuring school districts to reopen classrooms with little guidance. 

BY THE NUMBERS: These Tennessee school districts are already reporting COVID-19 cases after reopening

More than 150 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff have been reported since schools first began reopening in Tennessee. 

Some districts, including Putnam County Schools and Hamilton County Schools, are releasing data publicly through their own individual dashboards.

“We have seen many school districts voluntarily give that information and so we feel like with that in addition to what we are providing, people can make their decisions,” Piercey said during a press briefing Tuesday. 

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn declined to comment on the legality of school districts releasing such data versus the state education department doing so when asked by reporter Tuesday. 

The state has continued to face criticism since Lee announced the state’s guidance for reopening schools on July 28.

The issue over COVID-19 data collection and schools comes months after the  Tennessee Department of Health and the Lee administration faced criticism for initially refusing to release certain information. The previous refusals related to reporting county-level deaths and cases at nursing homes.

Now the state releases information on nursing home outbreaks, though Piercey said Tuesday that doing so is a HIPPA violation.

Piercey said the state was asked to release the data, or given permission to, by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service.

Neither the health or education departments have received or requested permission from the U.S. Department of Education to release information on cases in schools, Piercey said.

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Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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