State, Lee ask fed about schools’ public virus info

Saturday, August 22, 2020
Governor Bill Lee and Legislative leadership announce the Tennessee Business Relief Program at Arnold's Country Kitchen, June 2.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee could release more data on COVID-19 cases in schools after all, as long as Gov. Bill Lee first gets the answer he wants from the federal government.

At a news conference Thursday, the Republican said his administration is asking federal officials how specific Tennessee can get in disclosing cases of COVID-19 in schools.

Earlier this month, Lee told reporters the state was working on a plan so communities could know what’s happening in schools regarding COVID-19. His administration said Tuesday federal health and student privacy laws prevent Tennessee from handing over detailed case confirmations in school districts. Instead, the Department of Health is releasing case counts among school-aged children broken down by county.

School districts currently have the choice of releasing information on cases on their own.

Lee said Thursday he’s reaching out to federal counterparts because he wants more data to be released. One contributing factor for the caution is that he’s worried the state could lose some funding if it’s not in line with federal guidelines.

“We recognize that transparency is really important and parents want to know as much information as they can,” Lee said. “We also recognize that parents want their children’s information to be private individually. That balance is significant.”

Some other states are already releasing information on COVID-19 cases down to the individual district or school levels. In Tennessee, Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey has said her department has to comply with strict restrictions imposed by federal health privacy laws that not all other states must follow.

Piercey also said the Tennessee attorney general’s office and other attorneys for the state have advised “to look very closely at these privacy guidelines.”

As of Thursday, Tennessee had 2,100 confirmed COVID-19 cases in children ages 5 to 18 over the past two weeks, according to the state data.

So far, 131 of Tennessee’s roughly 140 public schools have restarted, with 129 districts operating or planning to run on a hybrid model, and most of those opening in person with a virtual option, said Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Eighteen districts are operating fully remotely, and nine individual schools as of Thursday were closed due to at least one COVID-19 case, Schwinn said.

Lee has been a strong advocate for students to return to in-person learning over a virtual model, as long the districts quickly isolate those who are sick and quarantine their close contacts.

According to Lee’s new school guidelines, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days from the onset of their symptoms or isolate 10 days from the date they were tested.

While most people who contract the coronavirus recover after suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, it can be deadly for older people and those with existing health problems.