Friday, November 20, 2020

Area School Districts Lack Consistent Policies in reporting COVID cases

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2020 at 11:14 AM

Currently, there is no policy for alerting the public about positive COVID-19 cases in local school districts and officials have chosen differing levels of transparency when revealing the prevalence of the virus throughout their schools.

Districts report their coronavirus cases to the Pima County Health Department, which provides guidance to schools based on metrics in its COVID-19 progress report. However, these are merely guidelines, and schools aren’t necessarily obliged to follow them.

The health department recommends each school site designate a team to implement a COVID-19 mitigation plan, who are then connected to a liaison at the department.

In a reference guide for school reopenings, the health department says to reopen, schools should be ready “to consult with the local health authorities if there are cases in the facility.”

As many districts reopen for hybrid learning, they’re reporting COVID-19 cases among students and staff causing groups of potential contacts to quarantine.

Sunnyside Unified and Marana Unified have created dashboards listing their positive cases. Public information officials from the Amphitheater Unified District and Flowing Wells Unified School District have been responsive in providing their positive case numbers to the press.

However, Tucson’s largest school district is not revealing their case counts.

Although Tucson Unified School District doesn’t plan to implement hybrid learning until January, is has on-campus learning spaces available to some students.

TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo says although the district notifies close contacts, the district isn’t publicly releasing COVID-19 case counts due to “online covid shaming and bullying.”

“We have run into things online where employees are turning against employees, calling them irresponsible, calling them super spreaders,” Trujillo said at a Nov. 12 press conference. “Unfortunately, I'm in a position now where I feel like I have to advocate for the safety and the well being, emotionally, of the employees that are diagnosed with COVID-19, and unfortunately that puts me in a position to do the minimum, and the minimum right now is notifying those close contacts.”

According to the superintendent, teachers have threatened to resign over their positive COVID-19 status becoming public, and therefore feel “they can no longer go back and work at the school, being treated differently, ostracized, not invited to meetings.”

If the county health department recommends a classroom to move to remote instruction, Trujillo says he won’t announce it due to the “blowback” he sees positive testers and those in quarantine receiving. However, he says will notify the public of an entire school has to close.

The Catalina Foothills School District, which opened for hybrid learning on Oct. 26, is also refusing to reveal their COVID-19 cases.

In a request for information on the district’s coronavirus cases from Tucson Weekly, Julie Farbarik, Catalina Foothills’ director of alumni and community relations, denied the request in an email.

“The facts that you are requesting are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The small numbers involved may lead to disclosing personally identifiable information,” Farbarik wrote in the email. “Releasing such facts, alone or in combination with other information, would allow a person in the school community to identify the student/s who are absent due to COVID-19.”

Trujillo says in the future, TUSD may create a dashboard with their coronavirus cases, but its information will be limited.

“I think we can get to some sort of a dashboard structure where we can communicate some information in a broad sense, that doesn't compromise any individual person. I do understand that we're not being as transparent, that's a conscious decision,” he said. “There's no winners or losers here, I just happen to be of the viewpoint that at this particular time, the emotional health and safety and well being of the afflicted employee that's already going through a difficult situation, is my priority.”

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