Florida Times-Union | by Emily Bloch | September 2, 2020
Two weeks into the school year, parents and teachers remain in the dark about how many COVID-19 cases exist within the Duval County School District. That’s because the local Department of Health advised Duval Schools officials it couldn’t publish cases tied to schools on its website before getting permission from the state.
Throughout Florida, there’s confusion about what information is fair game and what those numbers even look like following the Florida Department of Health withdrawing its own public reports about the spread of the disease in schools — a decision that holds importance for families across the state as school re-openings in other districts continued this week.
The department’s position to withhold COVID-19 data is at odds with federal guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, which says districts can report state numbers as long as they don’t identify individual students, a potential health-privacy violation.
Asked about the blanket information blackout, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health cited a state law that normally exempts such data from public disclosure. But that law also allows for the publication of health data “when necessary to public health.” The department did not clarify the discrepancy in a series of email exchanges with the Times-Union.
Last Tuesday, the Duval County school district announced it would have to pause releasing information to the public about school-related COVID-19 cases following the directive from the Florida Department of Health.
School district spokesman Tracy Pierce said the Duval County Department of Health told the district it cannot publish “school specific data related to COVID-19” without the state health department’s permission, which has apparently not been granted.
It’s a move the school district is still fighting, correspondence obtained by the Times-Union shows.
“Discussing public health concerns of the Duval public educational system, DCPS administrators were advised they may seek authorization from the Florida Surgeon General through the Florida Department of Health,” Duval County Public Schools legal counsel, Derrel Chatmon said in a letter to the state department last Thursday.
“In light of the Florida Department of Health’s objections, but in cooperation with the Duval County Health Department’s suggestion, Duval County Public Schools specifically requests the Florida Department of Health to authorize the publishing of positive COVID-19 test results within the Duval County Public School environment,” he wrote.
The information blackout came a week after the state department said it accidentally published its own school-related COVID-19 case report.
The state report, which noted 559 new COVID-19 cases related to elementary, middle and high schools within a two week period (from Aug. 10 to Aug. 23) — including 24 cases in Duval County — was retracted after the Times-Union reported on it, noting inconsistencies and discrepancies. The state report did not list cases by school, but rather the county a person who tested positive resides in. The state said the report was in draft form and was published inadvertently.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and his appointed surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, said Monday they were aware of the withdrawn school health reports and implied revised versions would be published in the future. DeSantis zeroed in on his desire to specify whether cases in schools are symptomatic in future reports, but that is not a distinction Department of Health daily reports on cases across the state have made since reporting began in March.
“We’re trying to put together what is the best report that actually truly captures what the incidence of cases are in the state as related to schools,” Rivkee said.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Health could not provide an expected publishing date for the new school-related reports despite the fact that the majority of Florida school districts have re-opened in the last month.
Shannon Russell-Hinds, an English teacher at Sandalwood High School and a union representative for Duval Teachers United, said the public has a right to know school-related case numbers.
“Duval County Public Schools promised transparency, but it appears that the Department of Health is attempting to silence the very people who are charged with protecting the lives of everyone in nearly 200 schools,” Russell-Hinds said. “Parents and staff have a right to all available data and to know about the healthiness or a lack thereof in each building so that they can make an informed decision that they believe is best for them accordingly.”
For the last week, The Florida Times-Union has made multiple attempts to reach the Florida Department of Health seeking clarification on the policy it’s citing as reasoning against Duval Schools publishing its own numbers.
The Times-Union asked a department spokesman what in state law prohibits school districts from publishing COVID-19 case numbers, as well as for the number of school districts that are seeking permission to publish numbers, but he didn’t directly answer the question.
He referred to data the department reports to school districts as “confidential.”
Russell-Hinds said the school district being forced to pause its plans to release case numbers “creates mistrust, more anxiety and stress.”
This isn’t the first time the state department of health has suppressed information about COVID-19. Last month, the Times-Union reported that a directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration prevented county health directors’ from advising school districts about remaining closed or reopening during a pandemic.
Now, the same administration says school districts have to get permission from the state before reporting COVID-19 case numbers.
The Times-Union requested records from the Florida Department of Health related to its latest directive to the school district but has not received anything back.
In a news conference Monday, Mayor Lenny Curry said he thinks publishing the number of school-related COVID-19 cases is important.
“As a parent, personally, yes, I would want to know if there are positives at the school my kids are at,” he said. “The extent that we can have transparency, I would expect that, but I don’t want to assume that anyone is intentionally withholding information.”
Still, parents like Jennifer Cowart — a local physician — aren’t so sure that the state’s withholding of information is unintentional.
“The state has not produced a solid dashboard of school-level data with numbers of students and teachers, yet is forcing the local school district to not release this information,” she wrote in a letter she sent to DeSantis. “Releasing school-level data that is deidentified [meaning it does not name the student or staff member] during a public health emergency is not a violation of personal privacy. Instead, the lack of reliable, transparent data at the school level leads to confusion and mistrust.”
Photo: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a panel during a roundtable discussion in Jacksonville. Bob Self/Florida Times-Union