Some universities say notifying students of COVID-19 cases on campus violates privacy rights. Experts say transparency is key.

Korin Miller
·8 min read
BOSTON - AUGUST 6: A Boston University student moves into the Warren Towers dorm buildings while reading a sign about food apps and coronavirus protocols along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston on Aug. 18, 2020. Recent studies have shown a spike in depression amongst college students because of the coronavirus. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A Boston University student moving into a dorm reads a sign about coronavirus protocols on Aug. 18. (Stan Grossfeld/the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Outbreaks of COVID-19 are happening in schools and universities across the country, with several colleges shifting to online classes just weeks after opening. But some schools, like the University of Georgia, remain open for in-person classes despite coronavirus cases on campus. Now, faculty at that university have reportedly been instructed not to tell their students if a classmate has tested positive for the virus.

“Faculty should not notify others about the positive test as it may violate student privacy, even when a name is not specified in these messages,” reads an email sent on behalf of University of Georgia provost Jack Hu and vice president for instruction Rahul Shrivastav that was obtained by student newspaper the Red & Black. That guidance seemingly contradicts advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends that people quarantine for 14 days after they’ve been within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more.

Faculty were also told not to alter the location or format of their class if there is a positive case in their class, the Red & Black reports.

In a statement on its website regarding COVID-19 health and exposure on campus, the university says that “individual faculty, staff, and students have strong interests in the privacy of their own sensitive health information, and we are legally obligated to keep that information confidential. The University’s objective is to share relevant and reliable data to inform our campus community while also respecting individual privacy and preventing confusion.”

Gregory Trevor, the University of Georgia’s interim senior executive director for marketing and communications, tells Yahoo Life that while both faculty and students who have been exposed to COVID-19 are being notified when someone in their classes tests positive for COVID-19, “faculty are not and should not be responsible for disclosure to other students,” citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Related: Coronavirus numbers continue to grow on college campuses

The University of Georgia isn’t the only school taking this policy approach to COVID-19 cases on campus. Boston University administrators said they won’t tell faculty if their students test positive for COVID-19, citing privacy concerns, according to BU Today. “The health of our community — faculty, staff, and students — is best served by ensuring the strict privacy of everyone’s test status,” Dr. Jean Morrison, university provost, wrote in a message online in late August.

“The policy is in line with public health best practices, and if a professor or fellow student meets the criteria of a close contact they will be notified,” Rachel Lapal, assistant vice president of public relations at Boston University, tells Yahoo Life. “The decision was based on the advice from our student health services. They recommended the policy so students would trust that their medical status would remain confidential and the students would, in turn, be more forthcoming with contact tracers. If students don’t feel their health privacy is being respected, they may be less forthcoming, which would make the overall contact tracing program less effective.”

Faculty at the University of Alabama were also reportedly instructed via an email sent from administrators (that was obtained by the Daily Beast) that they should not tell students if someone in class tests positive for the virus. “Do not tell the rest of the class,” the email says, with the word not underlined.

Shane Dorrill, assistant director of communications at the University of Alabama, tells Yahoo Life that the school’s COVID Support Team, which includes more than 30 staff members “trained in exposure notification, directly contact any students, faculty and staff who have been identified as having been in close contact with a COVID-positive individual.”

“That responsibility should not and will not be placed on a faculty member,” Dorrill adds.

But the privacy claims aren’t entirely accurate from a legal standpoint, Alan Butler, interim executive director and general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, tells Yahoo Life. The U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the federal student privacy rules under FERPA, released guidance and a FAQ about these issues in March, he points out.

That document says schools can “generally” disclose information about a student’s illness to other students and parents, “but only if that information is in a non-personally identifiable form.”

“It does not violate FERPA to disclose — without student consent — the existence of a case, so long as they do not disclose personally identifiable information or facts that would enable a person in the community to identify the student,” Butler says.

“A school could inform a teacher that someone in their class tested positive, but they should not identify the student,” he says.

But that’s where things can get tricky, Alex Alben, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law, tells Yahoo Life. “The question here is, if you don’t identify an individual, whether there still might be a privacy violation,” he says. “That depends on whether there could be identification of the person by virtue of other factors.” For example, it may be easy for people to figure out or assume who contracted COVID-19 in a small class of 15 where one student is repeatedly absent versus a large class of 500, he says. “Even if something is ‘anonymous,’ if it’s easy to identify an individual, the school needs to be careful about the information it gives. It’s very complicated.”

Shira Chess, an associate professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia, tells Yahoo Life that she and other people on campus aren’t thrilled about the school’s policy. “If universities are concerned with the ethics of reporting versus the ethics of getting humans sick, the best remedy is not requiring in-person teaching or in-person classes,” she says. “Students, faculty and staff that I’ve spoken to have expressed a lot of fear. Hiding information and repackaging it doesn’t help.”

Doctors also have concerns about these policies. “To me, it sounds like an excuse to deceive and not be forthright with people,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “I get the impression that they are more concerned with their image rather than being concerned about student health and safety.”

“There are two issues: One is the medical-legal part of this, and the other is the public relations and trust element with students,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. Adalja points out that not everyone is informed when they’ve been around someone with COVID-19 — instead, he says, people need to know when they have “significant exposure” to a person with the virus.

“The question is, do you tell everyone they’ve been around someone with the virus? I would argue that most schools need to have full transparency with the student body,” Adalja says. “It just makes sense to notify people when they have cases in class.”

Adalja says that information should be balanced by letting people know how significant their exposure was. Still, he says, “I would err on the side of transparency because this is a very disruptive time. The more trust you can earn, the better.”

It’s “hard to know for sure” what policies that prevent faculty from telling students about confirmed cases in class will do from a public health standpoint, Watkins says. But, he points out, “COVID-19 seems to be spreading a lot among young people now.”

Adalja agrees but says being transparent with students about COVID-19 cases in their class and on campus can affect their behavior — and that could affect total case counts. “When students have full situational awareness of what’s going on, they may adjust their behavior and think, ‘I need to be more careful,’” he says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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