A bill requiring the Department of Education to publicly identify which schools have coronavirus cases is moving forward at the Legislature, although state officials are concerned it might lead to panic and stigma.
Currently, the policy is for school administrators to alert anyone who might have been in close contact with a confirmed case, and also to notify their staff and families about the possible exposure and actions to contain the infection.
But when the state DOE issues its weekly online public report on COVID-19 cases, it tallies them not by individual school, but by complex area, which consists of two or three high schools and their feeder lower schools.
SB 811 would require the weekly statewide report to specify which schools had which cases, the date the test result was reported to the school and when the person was last on campus.
Senate Education Chairwoman Michelle Kidani said in introducing the bill that naming a school does not violate any students’ or teachers’ rights and that “the public has a right to know.”
Supporters say disclosing such information will help policymakers and the public understand how COVID-19 is affecting each school and make decisions accordingly.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association has long called for such disclosure, and the bill also was supported by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs along with a few individuals at its latest hearing.
“This measure would help to provide critical, real-time data necessary to assess school reopening and to respond to outbreak events that may place students, their families and school staff at heightened risk,” OHA told the House Education Committee.
“Identification by complex is meaningless information,” added Susan Pcola-Davis, a retiree. “Think of how many schools are in each district, mixed with grade level elementary, middle and high school. This is not transparency; it is smoke and mirrors. This creates public distrust and denies families and teachers the data to make decisions on their own behalf.”
The bill passed the Senate with no opposing votes and cleared the Education Committee on March 18 without opposition. It has been referred to the House Finance Committee.
The Department of Health testified that while it respects the need for transparency, “oversharing of case data can have unintended consequences.” Especially in smaller schools, or districts where cases are rare, publicizing a case could allow people to figure out who it is, it said.
“Identification of a case to classmates or others in the school community can lead to stigma and even bullying,” the Health Department wrote in its testimony.
Another possible consequence, it added, could be “inciting panic” among people who have not actually been exposed to the case, which could unnecessarily disrupt learning or lead to school closure.
The Department of Education also said the bill could hamper its efforts to protect children from being identified and harassed, as well as possibly cause disruption “due to the increased level of inquiries beyond the immediate school community.” It asked that reporting be limited to “public schools with an enrollment of 300 or more to support ongoing efforts to keep individuals’ identity confidential while they are recuperating.”
The teachers union told legislators that current notification efforts are inconsistent and lacking at some schools. It asked for disclosure within 24 hours, and for more information to be released, including the times the person was on campus in the two days before testing positive. It also wants reports on how many students and school personnel are isolating or quarantining.
In her testimony, Oahu resident Lynn Otaguro acknowledged concerns about possible stigma or panic but said “hiding information will not make them go away” and that better education is needed.
“Frank disclosure about cases and how they are being handled can help the department to build trust, by allowing the public to see that it is being vigilant and that it is taking steps to address COVID-19 cases,” she said.
“In addition, concerns about stigma indicate that more, not less information and education is needed so that schools and communities can better address COVID-19. As educational institutions that connect with many families, the schools are in a good place to help build understanding of COVID-19, how it can be spread to anyone and what can be done to help stop its spread.”
The department reported March 11 that there is no evidence that the coronavirus has been transmitted at a Hawaii public school to date. Nonetheless, just as in the broader community, cases have been identified among students, staff and service providers statewide.
The most recent state report for March 20-26 cited 24 cases where individuals had been at school — 12 students, nine employees and four service providers spread across the state. Another four cases were reported among people who had not been on any campus for two weeks or more prior to diagnosis.
Statewide, since June 26 the Department of Education has reported 594 cases, including 108 who had not been at a DOE facility for at least two weeks before diagnosis. There are 174,700 students enrolled in Hawaii’s public schools and roughly 42,000 staff members, half of them part-time or casual workers.