Florida Department of Health claims number of COVID-19 cases in schools is confidential

Duval school district still pushing to publish COVID-19 data

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After the first full week of classes in Duval County, school officials say they are still counting how many teachers and students test positive for the novel coronavirus. But, the district said, it can’t share those numbers.

The Duval County Health Department told Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) officials Tuesday they needed to get permission from the state level in order to tell parents and the community how many cases are in its schools.

On Friday, after multiple requests for answers, the Florida Department of Health said the information about the number of COVID-19 cases in schools was “confidential.”

“In the interest of public health in Florida, the Surgeon General instructed County Health Departments to provides [sic] school districts with information regarding COVID-19 cases in their schools. However, this information is considered confidential,” a Florida Department of Health spokesman said in an emailed statement.

The health department said school districts have been advised the information about COVID-19 cases in schools is confidential, per state law. But, the spokesman added, the department does not regulate school district operations.

Healthcare law experts who spoke to News4Jax have denied that the statute cited by Florida health officials applies to school systems.

The Florida Department of Health did not respond to questions asking if or when it will give school districts approval to publish the data. The health officials also didn’t give a specific date for when they plan to release the updated copy of the data themselves.

“Unfortunately, that’s not a question that I have a solid answer to. I can’t really predict how the state’s going to manage the request and manage the process,“ said DCPS Director of Communications Tracy Pierce.

DCPS, which reported four coronavirus cases in its schools before being asked to stop, said it believes the information should be available for parents.

“We feel very strongly that families need to know this information. Particularly parents, because they are making enrollment, attendance decisions based on this information. It’s the district’s stance that we want to provide it,” said Pierce. “We have engaged our own attorneys assigned to the school system and we are now in the process of doing what the DOH advised that we do. Which, is to seek the permission of the state department of health because again, you know, if I were a parent with a child in school right now, I would want to know because that’s going to impact the decisions I make.”

The snag in districts reporting COVID-19 cases in schools comes after the state accidentally published a draft report of school-related cases. The data, however, was complicated and would not give a clear picture of successful mitigation or of outbreaks within a school or school district.

The draft report was taken down quickly after being published on Monday but showed cases were being counted based on where a staff member or student lived and not based on the location of the school where the person attended or was employed.

For example, a teacher could work in Duval County and live in neighboring St. Johns County, but the person’s case would be counted in St. Johns County as a school-related case despite never setting foot in a St. Johns County school building.

The conflicting reports also confused parents who noticed DCPS was reporting four cases of COVID-19 in its schools while the state published a draft reporting showing 24 school-related cases in Duval.

The draft data set was slammed by Florida Gov. Ron Desantis on Thursday.

“It was not necessarily accurate,” DeSantis said.

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