Tennessee Governor Flips Again, Says State Will Keep Schools With COVID-19 Outbreaks Secret

Aug 19, 2020

Gov. Bill Lee has cited federal health privacy laws — known as HIPAA —as a reason for not sharing data on school districts experiencing outbreaks or positive cases.
Credit Sergio Martinez-Beltran | WPLN

For the second time, Gov. Bill Lee has changed his position on whether the state should release information regarding cases of COVID-19 in schools.

At a press conference Tuesday, Lee told reporters the state is erring on the side of privacy.

“It’s a balance,” Lee said. “It’s really important that people in a school district can’t figure out which children individually have a case.”

During the press conference, Lee and Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey initially cited federal health privacy laws — known as HIPAA — as a reason for not sharing data on school districts experiencing outbreaks or positive cases.

But, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, elementary and secondary schools are not covered under that law.

After being confronted with the information, Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said they were also concerned about violating federal education privacy laws, best known as FERPA.

“We want to make sure that we are thinking about privacy,” Schwinn said. “So, we are very, very careful about sharing any student-level data.”

Lee administration officials say that policy means the state will not even identify which schools have COVID cases. Schwinn said that’s a decision left to the local districts.

“We have schools that are less than 200 students,” Schwinn said. “If you have five students at a school in a specific classroom who have tested positive, you are in essence providing a grain size that is not appropriate for us to share a state level.”

But it’s unclear if, by providing that data, school districts will be violating privacy laws. Putnam County, for instance, has a dashboard that breaks down confirmed positive cases, and the number of students quarantined and in isolation by school. This is one of the most transparent dashboards in the state.

When asked if the school district was breaking the law, Schwinn refused to say definitively.

“We are allowing local school districts and school boards in consultation with their board attorneys to make decisions on what they are comfortable sharing with their reading of FERPA,” Schwinn said.

This is the fourth time his administration has changed its position on sharing data during the pandemic.

In March, the administration refused to share countywide data regarding deaths due to COVID-19. It later reversed itself.

The administration also decided to make information regarding nursing homes available to the public after receiving pushback from the public and the media.