As they did this week, Janesville School District officials in most cases will continue to identify school buildings when informing the public about positive cases of the coronavirus among district students and staff.
Craig High School and Roosevelt Elementary School on Monday suspended in-person learning for at least two weeks after several students tested positive for the virus last week.
But what happens when positive cases arise but don’t meet the school closure threshold?
Michael Oellerich, an attorney for the district, said his understanding is that the school in question will inform residents while also protecting the privacy of those infected. The district will identify the number of positive cases and the school in which those cases are discovered.
“It’s certainly the policy of the district to keep everyone as informed as we can while still protecting the privacy rights of our students. ... We need the community to be informed so they can continue to be proactive in their health and safety communitywide,” Oellerich said.
“But at the same time, we can’t necessarily just open up all of our records so that everyone knows who everybody is.”
For cases in smaller schools, the district might not identify the school building because smaller classes will make students easier to identify, Oellerich said.
“Saying that it’s a junior at Craig, well, there’s a lot of juniors at Craig, so we’re not giving out any identifiable information,” he said. “But by saying it’s one of the 50 students at Rock River Charter School or something like that, the more we narrow it down, the more we get to ‘We didn’t say the student’s name, but we gave you enough information where we didn’t have to say the student’s name’” to identify the person.
District spokesman Patrick Gasper said last week that the Rock County Public Health Department has informed school districts that they get to decide how much information to share.
He said his understanding was that the health department did not want the names of schools released but that the decision is up to districts.
Gasper said the district will contact anyone who should quarantine or monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.
“We don’t need people sitting around twiddling their thumbs thinking, ‘Oh my God, am I next?’ You’ll find out,” Gasper said.
Information shared with the public will be different from that shared with people who might have had contact with an infected student or staff member. Those in close contact likely will get more information, including the specific class they might have been infected in, for safety’s sake and contact tracing, Oellerich said. The public likely will learn only which school was affected.
The right to privacy in schools is covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which prohibits disclosure of any personally identifiable information, including a student’s name.
Oellerich said a district also can cite its own policies on identity and information protection when deciding how much to disclose.
“Ultimately, I don’t know that we need to have a specific law or something to rely on,” he said. “It’s become the district’s policy to not disclose this way. And whether there’s a specific prohibition based on FERPA or state law or anything else like that, the policy of the district is to not provide identifying information.”