Schools not required to notify parents, staff about COVID-19 cases within building

Posted at 7:36 PM, Aug 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-19 19:36:23-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Your child’s school does not have to tell you about positive COVID-19 cases within the building unless your family is directly impacted and needs to quarantine, WRTV Investigates has learned.

WRTV checked with the Marion County Public Health Department and the Indiana State Department of Health, and both agencies said the minimum notification requirement is for schools to notify close contacts of the exposure, determined during contact tracing, and advise them to self-quarantine.

WRTV Investigates did some checking and found Warren and Wayne Township schools, as well as Beech Grove are among those taking the approach where they notify only impacted families who need to quarantine.

“To respect and protect the privacy of our students and staff, and in accordance with health department guidelines, our communication of positive COVID-19 cases in our schools will continue to be with those who are close contacts of the person who tested positive,” Dennis Jarrett, spokesperson for MSD of Warren Township, said in an email to WRTV. “The communication will either be in the form of a personal phone call or email from the individual schools.”

Franklin Township notifies the classroom that there was a case, but not the entire school building.

But other districts like Perry, Lawrence and Decatur Township schools are opting to share more information with parents and staff in school buildings.

For example, after a positive case was identified at Decatur Central High School, the district notified all families and staff at the school, while also contacting specific families who had to be quarantined based on contact tracing.

Schools can choose to be more transparent and forthcoming with information about COVID-19 cases than the state requires.

“Schools are able to make their own decisions about releasing information as long as they do not violate any HIPPA or FERPA laws,” Megan Wade-Taxter, a spokeswoman for ISDH, said in an email to WRTV. “There is no state requirement that an entire building be notified of a positive COVID-19 case in that location. Rather, contact tracing focuses on identifying those individuals who were close contacts of the infected individual, and therefore at greater risk of exposure, and notifying them so that they can quarantine for the appropriate period.”

Joleen Tawfik is a concerned parent in Perry Township.

Her daughter is attending classes at Douglas Macarthur Elementary School because she has special needs and benefits from in-person services.

"I myself am a type 1 diabetic with health complications, so that worries me, is what if I send her to school and she brings it home to me,” Tawfik said.

Perry Township is one of several districts in Marion County that chooses to notify parents and staff about positive cases using an automated phone system.

Tawfik said communication is key for parents.

In fact, Tawfik and other parents want school systems to make it public when any case is identified within the district.

"I understand there's HIPAA violations and you can't give us all the specifics,” Tawfik said. “I understand that. At the same time, we deserve to know a little more."

The notification system can be confusing, as parents across central Indiana are receiving drastically different amounts of information depending on how much their school district chooses to share.

"If we hear about these numbers through the grapevine, I think more panic sets in than them being transparent,” Tawfik said. “Some might disagree and say they don't want to hear and people hear more numbers and they panic. I still think it's important to know when we are trying to keep our community safe."

Tawfik said providing more information, not less, helps curb the rumor mill and gives parents information they need to decide whether to do in-person or virtual classes.

"Then you have the option to change if you feel like it's getting a little out of control at their school, even with their protocols,” Tawfik said. “I'm trying to have faith and give my child the best education. Honestly, she's been thriving since she's been back in school. "

Perry Township Schools provided the following statement to WRTV regarding its notification of parents:

We communicate with the families of students in the affected building. We communicate with staff members in that building, as well. These calls are made with our automated recording system.
The families of quarantined students receive a separate phone call because there are special instructions that must be conveyed.
Since the start of school, we've shared reminders with all of our families to sign up for ParentSquare, our primary communication channel, if they haven't already. We've also sent reminders for parents/guardians to confirm that their school(s) has their preferred phone number to ensure they receive phone calls.