After Weeks Of Resistance And Citing Privacy Laws, Tennessee Will Release School Outbreak Data

Sep 4, 2020

Students have their temperatures taken and their hands sanitized as they enter a school building in Maury County. The district is one of many in Tennessee that has been disclosing how many cases it's had districtwide but not which schools are affected.
Credit Maury Co. Schools/via Facebook

After weeks of pushback from parents, Tennessee will now make some data on school outbreaks public.

The Tennessee Department of Education says it will soon launch a new dashboard with district-submitted data.

The website is expected to go live on Tuesday, and it will have a map and search function of school districts and specific schools. The Education Department says it will be updated every Tuesday.

Gov. Bill Lee told reporters he recognizes there is a desire by parents to know more about what’s happening in their schools.

“We believe that we have developed a reporting mechanism that will help inform parents to help them make choices but it doesn’t compromise our obligation to parents and to students and to teachers,” Lee said. “That obligation to not compromise privacy around their individual health.”

Under the new guidelines, which will be made public during Gov. Bill Lee’s weekly press briefing this afternoon, schools with five or more cases of COVID-19 will be expected to provide information on school changes to its learning model, as well as the number of new staff and student cases compared to the prior week.

However, schools with fewer than 50 students will not make the data public. This is to protect the privacy of those in smaller communities.

Tennessee says it will be the state education department to provide this information. In other states, such as North Carolina, school outbreak data has come via the departments of health.

Making this information public could be crucial for parents to make an informed decision on whether to send their kids to school, but the state hasn’t made a clear commitment to releasing the information until now.

Over the last few weeks, state officials have flip-flopped on whether they should share information on COVID-19 individual schools. While promising transparency, Lee, education commissioner Penny Schwinn and health commissioner Lisa Piercey have said privacy laws prevent them from disclosing more data.

But, the state now says it has worked with the federal government to ensure the information they provide will not violate any privacy laws or jeopardize federal funds.

Some school districts, like Putnam County, are already sharing this data. But others, like Knox County, are sharing only districtwide data, not making public school-specific COVID-19 numbers.

The Tennessee Department of Education says its data-sharing initiative is optional, but it expects most districts to participate.