It’s critical that schools be transparent


As Indiana school administrators look ahead to the time when everyone returns to the classroom — and when COVID-19 makes its inevitable appearance — they are grappling with how such information will be shared.

And as with most issues related to COVID-19, they are doing so with little, if any, guidance from the state.

As noted in a recent Tribune report, there are no requirements by the state for how Indiana schools reopen and operate during the pandemic. Many key decisions — from how cases are handled to who gets alerted — are being left to school districts to make on their own.

Some districts have already faced these decisions. Saint Joseph High School canceled some sports workouts for two weeks last month after at least seven students tested positive for COVID-19.

Mishawaka High School’s football coach tested positive for the virus and the school’s volleyball players and coaches were put under quarantine after "an individual involved" with the program tested positive. John Glenn High School canceled football practice for a week and instructed players and coaches to self-monitor for symptoms after one of its players tested positive.

Locally, Brownstown Central quarantined the football team for a better than a week after a played tested positive while Seymour’s volleyball team and Trinity’s girl’s soccer team were sidelined for two weeks after positive COVID-19 tests.

And this past weekend, Medora schools went to eLearning for two weeks after a staff member tested positive and suspended extra-circular activities including girls volleyball.

The schools handled the public release of the cases in different ways, and different levels of detail.

All of this raises important questions about how transparent schools will be, of how cases will be tracked and how much information will be released to the public. And how will school leaders notify students, parents and the public?

Those interviewed in the Tribune (South Bend) story expressed a general desire to be transparent while also respecting privacy.

And many school officials have pointed to privacy laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as reasons for potentially not disclosing COVID-19 cases to the public.

But HIPAA generally does not apply to elementary and secondary schools and does not prohibit the reporting of coronavirus case statistics without names.

School officials have critical decisions to make on transparency — decisions that will affect those inside the school buildings and the community at large. In sending students back into the classrooms, with the hope that all the safety guidelines are in place and are effective, school leaders will be embarking on a grand experiment. They will do so with the expectation that, even with safety measures in place, there will be coronavirus cases. The challenge will be avoiding a massive outbreak.

It’s essential that schools keep the community updated on COVID-19 figures, as it affects everyone. Limiting the spread of the virus doesn’t mean ignoring privacy concerns by revealing names. It means being honest and timely in relaying urgent information.

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