By Scott Buttram, publisher
TRUSSVILLE — My position on the reopening of everything from businesses to schools hasn’t changed for a very long time. We have enough data for people to make up their own minds based on risk versus reward. We don’t need the government to dictate our decisions. We’re adults in a free society. Give us the facts and we’ll decide for ourselves. I believe that.
I should add, that my position is not based on politics. It’s based on a deeply held belief that reasonable people can make reasonable decisions for themselves if given the facts of a situation. What is best for my family may not be best for yours. Maybe your family is young and healthy. Maybe a family member has an underlying health issue. Maybe your family includes an elderly person. I’ll trust you to make your best decision and I’ll do my best to make mine.
But what do we do when the facts and data are not provided? That’s a quandary.
We know that our area of 35173 is currently the Jefferson County hot spot for COVID-19 positive tests. We know that the positive tests per capita in our community have exploded in recent weeks. When Trussville City Schools was one of only two out of 13 school systems in Jefferson County that decided to bring back the majority of students for in-person classes five days a week, it raised eyebrows. Was the decision wise or foolish? We don’t know. Did the decision contribute to the local rapid rise in COVID positive cases? We don’t know.
About six weeks ago, parents made the best decision for their children based on the information available at the time. Now parents are facing another decision-making crossroad without updated information from the schools. It’s like parenting in the dark.
But as we found out from observing the most recent school board meeting, even if the information on COVID cases at TCS were made public, it wouldn’t be reliable. On the upside, maybe parenting in the dark is better than the blind leading the blind. Pick your poison.
The TCS Board of Education meeting on Monday didn’t provide the information many of us had hoped for to help us make the best decision for our children and families. But the meeting was incredibly enlightening.
Based on Monday night’s comments, it’s now safe to assume that even the five Board of Education members at TCS don’t know how many students, faculty, and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 or how many have been quarantined through contact tracing.
Nobody has any idea.
“It would be a wild guess if I had to give a number,” Superintendent Dr. Pattie Neill told the board.
If that’s unnerving, it only gets worse.
Repeatedly in the meeting, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules and violations were cited as reasons for not releasing even the most basic information to parents and the community.
There’s one problem with that and it’s a very big problem. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services clearly states on their website that HIPAA rules do not apply to most schools and school districts.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect education professionals to know all the HIPAA rules. I do think it’s reasonable for education professionals to know HIPAA doesn’t apply to them.
Not to get the horse before the cart, but I suspect FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) will or has also been floated as an excuse for not releasing COVID-19 stats.
FERPA guidelines are also clear. The COVID stats can be released as long as there is no personally-identifying information.
That’s why many school systems across Alabama and the U.S. have been releasing this information to their parents and communities all along. They know it’s the right thing to do and they know it’s perfectly legal.
The beauty of reopening schools is that contact tracing could be used to quickly reign in any cases and prevent an outbreak. Not only does that make schools safer, but it extends to identifying hot spots in the community and making the entire community safer.
But contact tracing isn’t implemented if nobody knows who tested positive. It can’t be. It’s not even possible.
The TCS reopening plan clearly states under 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.
For emphasis, it is restated on the very next PowerPoint slide under Attendance Procedures released by TCS before schools reopened.
It’s hard to judge the reaction of BOE members when they heard this news. The masks make it impossible to see their reaction, so we just don’t know how they took it.
But no one said, “Dr. Neill, we’re over halfway through the first nine weeks and parents have only a few weeks to determine whether to stay the course or make a change for their students. Why are we just now finding out that we either have no data or unreliable data to share with them as they make this important decision? Why hasn’t TCS enforced its reopening procedures? How will we ever know how far off our attendance coding is?”
Sometimes what people say is not nearly as important as what they don’t say. It actually says a lot. In this case, it says you’re in the dark and you’re on your own.