By Erica Thomas, managing editor
TRUSSVILLE — The Trussville City Schools Board of Education streamed its September 21 meeting online.
Superintendent Dr. Pattie Neill updated the board on coronavirus response, during the workshop. Both Neill and TCS School Board President Kathy Brown made mention of HIPAA guidelines when addressing the release of information on coronavirus in schools, although according to the federal government, HIPPA does not apply to most schools.
“The way that we’ve reopened and stayed open is such a great surprise,” Neill said. “I thought we might have more problems than we have had.”
Neill said precautions taken by TCS have helped avoid outbreaks in classrooms due to exposure at school. By outbreaks, Neill said that means two or more positive cases in the same setting.
“We have had some random cases that came in and we only know that because the parents called it in,” Neill said. “We only know if we have a positive case if the parents decide to call us and tell us because when a student goes to the doctor, their pediatrician doesn’t report to us. Their pediatrician reports a positive case to the health department. So, there’s a chance we don’t know of every positive case we’ve had.”
According to the TCS Reopening plan’s Health and Safety Procedures, parents are required to notify the school if a student is tested for COVID-19 or if a household member tests positive for COVID-19. Neill previously said those students would be put into a special attendance code for an excused absence.
During the meeting Monday, Neill said since symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to many other illnesses, schools have been able to control the environment inside the classroom by making sure students with symptoms are sent home and parents are notified. Neill commended parents who keep their children home when they observe symptoms or are aware of an exposure.
The superintendent said the Alabama Department of Public Health is collecting numbers from school nurses. The department is working on an online database with that information. That database will be made public.
“I will be very happy to find out how many of our students have tested positive because today I don’t know,” Neill added. “It would be a wild guess if I had to give a number.”
The superintendent said she has no way to know if a child is tested for COVID-19 after being sent home. Furthermore, Neill said she is not qualified to handle sensitive health information on students.
“Those HIPAA rules are not rules that are in my lane,” Neill stated.
“We’re dealing with complex, health disclosure rules that in our case, non-emancipated minors, which are different than what college students are, because they are 18-years-old or over and they’re considered adults,” Neill continued. “So, when you’re dealing with non-emancipated minors, you’ve got to follow those rules and they are beyond me. So, the health department has specifically asked that they do it.”
School Board President Kathy Brown, who is also a nurse, said giving the information could lead to more positive cases being reported than there really are and she said the school releasing the information would be a HIPAA violation.
“The thing about it is, and we had a personal case from someone at my husband’s work, they are already, in some cases, already counting everyone in that household with being positive, and without being tested,” said Brown. “In this particular case, they ended up going to be tested just to know and they ended up being negative, but they were already counted as positive.”
In August, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson said one of the biggest challenges he’s faced during the pandemic is the spread of misinformation. He said some of that false information included that people living in a household with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus are counted as positives.
“I mean so, for us to try bouncing around the numbers, I just, it’s out of our lane, it’s a HIPAA violation and we’re not doing the testing,” Brown continued.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HIPAA guidelines do not apply to most schools and school districts.
HIPAA applies only to covered entities, such as medical providers and insurance companies who have personalized individual health care information on patients.
Other school systems across the nation have used FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as a reason to not release coronavirus numbers, despite the fact that some parents say they can only make decisions about their children returning to school if they know the numbers.
However, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed FERPA does not prevent schools from releasing coronavirus numbers. In fact, the Department said schools can play an important role in slowing the spread of the virus by informing the public.
Neill said the health department would contact her if they recognized an issue at the school or in the area of the school.
During its regular meeting, the Board recognized October 2020 as National Dyslexia Awareness Month for TCS.4520_001
Board Member Mark Sims was selected as a delegate for the AASB 2020 Winter Conference. Kim DeShazo will be the alternate for the conference. The consent agenda was approved. Items on consent are listed in the photo in this article.
Video of the workshop and meeting can be viewed below.
The TCS BOE October meeting will be on Monday, Oct. 19, at 5 p.m., in the Board Room at the Central Office. Ahead of the meeting, the Board will participate in a Board Retreat that will include training, lunch and department/school reports.