MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – Manatee County was the first school district in the Tampa Bay area to reopen schools two and a half weeks ago. In that time frame, there have been confirmed COVID-19 cases at more than 20 schools, but no one knows exactly how many people have been impacted.
Right now, messages go out to parents alerting them of COVID-19 cases, but only at their child’s school. The messages are vague and do not include any numbers, only general terms including ‘a couple of cases’ or direct exposures’.
For Palmetto High School, the term ‘direct exposures’ meant more than 100 students being sent home to quarantine after being potentially exposed to COVID-19.
The school’s principal sent out an updated message using the term ‘abnormal’ in describing the number of students affected.
Here’s part of the message:
Palmetto High School Families and Employees – I am calling to update you on a confirmed case of COVID-19 on our campus that I first informed you about yesterday.
The case resulted in a abnormal number of students being quarantined from our campus for a period of 14 days. The reason for the number of students quarantined was due to the fact that the school did not have up-to-date seating charts of each class. As a result, the Department of Health epidemiologist, working in conjunction with the District’s Operations Center, was unable to clearly identify those students who had Direct Exposure to the confirmed case.
Some parents felt they deserved to know the numbers, so they could make decisions for themselves and their families.
School District officials previously told 8 On Your Side specifics could not be released to due HIPAA concerns.
Some feel it’s not a confidentiality issue, but rather a transparency issue.
“We are not asking for names of individuals, but we want to know how many cases there are, how many people are affected, how many people are being quarantined. Whether it is two, whether it is 20, whether it is 200, the public deserves to know, parents deserve to know,” said Manatee County parent Jessica Patterson. “Numbers are numbers. We are getting numbers from the state. The district gave numbers all summer; we knew that 350 staff were affected over the summer. This is just about transparency,” she continued.
Manatee County residents have now taken matters into their own hands. A local group has created an online database to track COVID-19 cases at Manatee County schools. Parents can visit the web page and submit messages they receive from the district anonymously.
We asked ‘Community Provided COVID Alerts in Manatee Schools’ why they felt the need to create the page. This was their response:
“We felt the page was a needed resource because so far, our district does not provide any dashboard or web page on their site that shares all this information in one location for public access. At this time alerts are only dispatched by the schools to their members (employees or families) and eventually reported by local news sources. It does seem that what is in official reporting comes somewhat delayed to the notices being sent. Furthermore, our district does not provide any numbers related to confirmed cases. They do not tell us how many “direct exposures” identified through contact tracing have been told to isolate. Our understanding is that the district sites privacy laws, although we can find no legal basis to not provide a total number of persons impacted by each case confirmed on our campuses. We feel that this is an important detail in understanding the scope of COVID-19 impact on our school’s reopenings. For example: have 20 people had to isolate because of direct exposures during the first two weeks of school? Or have 200? Or more? Again, the more we know as a community, the more informed our personal decisions can be.”
School Board Member Dr. Scott Hopes agrees, numbers need to be disclosed to families.
“They want it, they deserve it, and they need it. In public health, you don’t get behavior change unless you provide information. People base decisions on the information that they receive and there appears to be a push and pull going on right now between the health department both I think at the state level and a local level with regards to information dissemination,” said Dr. Hopes.
Dr. Hopes says as an elected official, he and other board members have an obligation to keep constituents informed.
“We are not going to disclose any confidential information. We are not going to disclose any private health information, but with regards to simple statistics of how many staff members either have been exposed or have been tested positive in our school system and students that are known cases and the number of students that have been sent on quarantine because of contact with a known case.. that is not disclosing any confidential or proprietary information and the public has a right to know. As an epidemiologist, I am not about to withhold information that should be made available to the public so that they can make the appropriate decisions for their families health and safety,” said Dr. Hopes.
Dr. Hopes tells 8 On Your Side the district is working on developing an online COVID-19 dashboard. “A dashboard for employees and staff members that will tie into the tracking system so that we can inform the public when we have cases on campus,” said the school board member.
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