Broward schools memo tells employees not to reveal COVID-19 status

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South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Scott Travis | July 27, 2020

Employees of Broward Schools were instructed Monday not to discuss whether anyone in the district had tested positive for COVID-19 — including themselves.

District Safety Chief Brian Katz sent the memo, called “Employee Confidentiality and COVID-19,” to all district employees. Most of the memo instructs employees to respect the medical rights of other employees and not share who may have the new coronavirus. But one line addresses employees’ own results.

“As representatives of the district, employees should also refrain from publicizing their own status in the workplace or on social media,” the memo states.

That sentence alarmed some district employees and their representatives.

“I can choose to tell someone that I’m diabetic or I’m just getting over a cold. Why wouldn’t I be able to choose to tell others my own status for coronavirus?” asked Sonja Lacourciere, a teacher at Forest Hills Elementary in Coral Springs. “The district doesn’t own my First Amendment rights just because I work for them.”

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said “if you don’t tell anyone, you possibly die. This is an absurd memo. It’s reckless and wrong.”

The memo notes there are some district officials who must be told for purposes such as medical leave or ensuring a location is sanitized.

usco said a union teacher was hospitalized with COVID-19 this spring and needed life-saving plasma. At the family’s request, Fusco made a plea on social media and the teacher received a transplant and is recovering, she said.

Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association, said every employee has the right to share their own medical information.

“I have a very good friend who is alone in the hospital with COVID and social media is her only outlet,” Maxwell said. “It’s a ridiculous assertion to be telling employees they can’t tell people about it. That should be retracted immediately.”

A statement from the office of Kathy Koch, the district’s chief communications officer, said the memo doesn’t tell people not to report and employees are expected to inform the district if they test positive.

“The intent of the memo is for individuals to maintain the privacy of health-related matters,” the statement said. “If an individual wants to share his/her status as it relates to COVID-19, that is a personal matter and should not be done so as a representative of the district.”

Brian Swider, an assistant professor of management at the University of Florida, said the district may be able to prevent an employee from using their illness to make derogatory comments about their employer. But assuming there’s no policy that prohibits it, employees should be able to share their COVID-19 status.

“How is this different than someone who is diagnosed with cancer?” he asked.

Cynthia Barnett Hibnick, a Coral Gables lawyer who specializes in health care issues, said the reason the district may view it differently is the fear that’s created by COVID-19 since it’s highly contagious and there’s no vaccine.

“I believe they’re requesting that their employees not go on social media to disclose this because they don’t want to cause panic throughout the entire school district,” Hibnick said. “I imagine they don’t want the negative blowback.”

It’s unclear how many cases of COVID-19 the district has. Superintendent Robert Runcie told the School Board on July 14 there were 107 cases, 81 who are district employees and the rest contractors. Koch’s office has not responded to multiple requests since then for updated figures.

Hibnick said she doubts the memo is legally enforceable, which is probably why it was written to say employees “should refrain” from sharing their status, not “must” or “shall” refrain.

“Exposing a true statement about your healthcare, I don’t think an employer has the ability to shut that down,” she said. “You have the right to a personal social life.”

School Board member Nora Rupert criticized the memo, saying it appeared to violate the employees’ free speech rights. But Board member Rosalind Osgood said the memo is being misinterpreted. The intent is to not mix your COVID-19 status with your employment, she said.

“I’m not sure why anyone would use their status at the district to communicate their COVID status,” Osgood said. “I was tested myself. I posted it and encouraged others to get tested. Mr. Katz is not trying to restrict any individual’s First Amendment rights.”

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