PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Almost daily now, a message comes on social media or to the KDKA email inbox from a parent telling us someone has tested positive for COVID-19 in their child’s school.
Often somewhere in the message is the accusation that the school is not handling it right, covering it up, or not giving parents the information they need.
Parents want to know what risks their children face so just how far can they expect the school district to go in disclosing incidents and how they are being handled.
Bob Daley is a Civil Law specialist with Robert Peirce and Associates.
“It’s an interesting mix of privacy rights and public health concerns,” Daley said. “So, the school districts of course or any employer, is not permitted to identify students or an employee by name who has tested positive for COVID. Districts and employers are permitted to interview the employer or the students who have COVID and ascertain who he or she may have been in contact with so that they can perform the appropriate contact tracing.”
But when it comes to telling the general school population about a case Daley says, “They’re allowed to say things such as a student in sixth grade at XYZ middle school has tested positive, but they’re not allowed to say, you know, Jane Smith or John Doe has tested positive.”
Daley says through contact tracing everyone who has had any contact with an infected person is notified and given instructions.
“Of course districts have a vested interest as well in keeping exposures to a minimum,” he said.
In other words, keeping the virus in check so it doesn’t spread like wildfire through the school.
Daley goes on to say, “I don’t think there’s any interest in a district in keeping information on public health and helping students health from parents.”
But the result of approaching COVID-19 cases on a “need to know” basis in an anxious school population has its issues.
“That can of course pose a problem because that can start the rumor mill buzzing,” Daley said.
In the emails received by KDKA we have seen reports of widespread cases in a high school, only to find the district is dealing with a couple of cases in an elementary school several miles down the road.
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Some parents have reached out upset that the school remains open after a positive case is discovered.
Daley says, “It’s up to the individual districts how they’re going to handle positive COVID cases. If the situation was every time there was a positive test, we shut schools that would probably be no reason to open schools in the first instance.”
Daley says parents need to be understanding, “It’s a pandemic and people are going to get the disease, unfortunately.”
So what should you do if the word comes in the wind of a coronavirus issue at your child’s school?
Daley suggests, “The best thing you can do is look at the COVID plan, each school has one, make sure it’s being complied with, go to the district, go to the board, go to the superintendent, go to the principal and, you know, express your concerns in a reasoned fashion.”
Daley says ultimately the parent has the final say and can pull their child out of school completely to learn totally online.
But he also reminds those who are worried about how their school is handling COVID concerns that the school is only required to notify those who had direct contact with the infected person.
The bottom line from Daley and from local health leaders is parents need to trust that the school has your child’s best health interest at heart and will only contact you if there is a reason for concern.
The keyword in that is “trust” and in the uncertainty of COVID 2020, that is far easier said than done.