JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On the third day of school in Duval County, school officials disclosed that two teachers and two students tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The district shared the names of the schools with the cases, but nothing else.
The next day, Florida health officials called and told them to stop.
Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) was in the process of creating an automated dashboard providing the same school-specific data on COVID-19 cases within the district. But, over a conference call, legal counsel for the Florida Department of Health advised the district that publishing that data would violate state law.
The school district, on the advice of the city’s attorneys, is now seeking permission from the Florida Department of Health on the state level to release the data.
“If I were a parent with a child in school right now, I would want to know because that’s going to have an impact on the decisions I make,” said DCPS Communications Director Tracy Pierce. “We believe strongly that parents should have the information.”
Jennifer Cowart is a physician treating COVID-19 patients. She also has a second-grade daughter enrolled in the DCPS distance-learning program. She said she was happy to be a part of a district publishing the information – up until the announcement on Wednesday.
“That’s the actionable material that parents with their kids in brick-and-mortar schools right now need to have. And it’s partly, the lack of information is why my daughter in the second grade is doing virtual right now,” said Cowart.
The legal counsel for DCPS has advised school officials to seek the permission of the Florida Department of Health on the state level, which they are currently in the process of doing, Pierce said. The district said it does not have any idea if or when it will get approval.
“We are going to continue to seek the approval or the legal pathway by which we are able to release this data as quickly as we can. We are still collecting it. We are still aggregating it. We just can’t share it in a public forum at the moment,” Pierce said.
Jacksonville-based healthcare attorney Ann Bittinger said the statute Florida health officials cited when asking districts not to publish COVID-19 data does not apply to school districts.
“There is nothing in the statute that in any way prohibits DCPS from publishing the per-school COVID data,” Bittinger said. “The population of schools is such that they’re big enough that if you say ’We have five students who tested positive at ABC Elementary School,’ that’s de-identified and that’s fine.”
The president of Chapman Law Group, Ronald Chapman, said there could be an argument made for not identifying that cases are specifically teachers or students, but added that publishing school-specific COVID case counts is ambiguous enough.
“One could argue there’s a corresponding duty to the school district to properly inform parents and students of potential for danger, potential for being ill within the building,” said Chapman.
The state’s push back on the district releasing information comes as the state failed to publish its own data detailing cases in schools.
On Monday, the Florida Department of Health published a document reporting hundreds of cases of COVID-19 related to schools in August. The Florida Department of Health communications director later said the agency “inadvertently” published it and it was a draft version.
The state quickly removed the draft and said the correct version of the data would not be released for days or weeks.
The draft data also didn’t tell parents how many cases were at schools in a school district or how many cases were at a specific school. The cases were reported by the residence of the patients, meaning a teacher who taught in Duval County, but lived in nearby St. Johns County would be counted as a case related to the St. Johns County School District despite never setting foot inside a school in that district.
State health officials have not responded to questions asking if they will change the format of the data or give school-specific counts when they resume publication of the data. The Florida Department of Health also acknowledged but didn’t answer questions as to why it did not have a school-related report ready when students first went back to class and why school districts have to ask permission to release the information.
On Wednesday, the nearby Clay County School district said it does not have a dashboard but it is working with the local department of health to see if it can or should.
“The Director for the Florida Department of Health - Clay County, Heather Huffman, is aware of the data dashboard that DCPS has proposed and is in contact with the Director of the Florida Department of Health in Duval County to find out how this is being accomplished without violating HIPAA regulations,” said Clay Schools spokeswoman Nicole Young.
Other districts have been posting COVID-19 information related to schools, such as those in Polk and Pasco counties. News4Jax reached out to Pasco County to see if it was given similar guidance from the Florida Department of Health.
This isn’t the first-time entities have started to share COVID-19 case data within a facility and then stopped after guidance from the Florida Department of Health.
In March, long-term care facility Camellia at Deerwood reported new cases of coronavirus at its facility to residents and their families. After several letters, the facility stopped reporting new cases to families.
They told residents and families in a letter, “The DOH has indicated they will release information while maintaining the privacy of individuals and have remained firm on that response with the media as well.”
The Florida Department of Health released the names of the long-term care facilities with cases in mid-April, but not the counts. About a week later, the Florida Department of Health began sharing how many cases were at each facility.