Positive COVID-19 tests reported in the last two weeks by a pair of Homestead Elementary School teachers have highlighted the lack of policy or guidelines requiring Harford County Public Schools to report such outbreaks to other staff or the community.
News of the positive tests traveled among Homestead staff by word of mouth, eventually reaching the Harford County Education Association, the union representing approximately 3,900 of the 5,000 HCPS employees, by Monday night. Association President Chrystie Crawford-Smick said the organization had verified that positive tests at the school had occurred in recent days, but said she could not confirm which grade levels any affected teachers taught, nor the timing of when those affected were in the buildings, around other staff, or around students.
Teachers returned to HCPS buildings on Tuesday, Oct. 13, ahead of a limited number of students returning one day per week this Monday.
At a Board of Education meeting on Monday, Oct. 12, Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson said a total of 12 HCPS employees had tested positive for COVID-19, including two that day.
HCPS Manager of Communications Jillian Lader said that any report of a positive test among students or staff at a school initiates a form of contact tracing led by that school’s nurse. However, a report of a positive test does not result in a mass communication to that school’s staff or community, she said.
“When the school system is notified about a positive case of COVID-19 or students/staff display COVID like illness as per the Maryland Department of Health Decision Aid, the school nurse works with the staff and family to identify close contacts (as defined by the Centers for Disease Control),” Lader said. “School nurses work in collaboration with our local health department to institute appropriate isolation/quarantine procedures.”
Lader added that a new COVID-19 dashboard would be launched on Friday, and updated on Friday each week, which “will notify our community about how schools and offices are impacted by community transmission.” The dashboard would include system-wide data, Lader added but only a list of affected schools or HCPS offices, rather than a building-by-building breakdown of the number of affected individuals at each facility. A building-specific breakdown could violate federal HIPAA guidelines governing medical privacy by enabling the identification of affected individuals, she said.
Crawford-Smick said that no federal or state guidelines mandate that school systems publicly notify either staff or the community about positive tests among school system employees. Maryland Department of Health spokesman Charles Gischlar told Fox 45 News on Oct. 9 that state officials do not plan to force county school systems to disclose data about outbreaks. Nonetheless, all establishments must try to take measures, such as setting up sneeze screens, to protect each other from infection.
“Data on school outbreaks are collected by local health departments, and we are in discussions with state and local education officials about the best way to release,” Gischlar said at the time. “Some school systems have expressed concerns about the release of any identifying information.”
Crawford-Smick said other recent rumors about outbreaks in other Harford schools have turned out to be untrue or exaggerated, fueled by the lack of public information to the contrary. She said HCEA members would seek to improve the reporting requirements on HCPS, an effort mirrored statewide by the organization’s parent association, the Maryland State Educators Association.
“We have people who are high-risk who need to know that they’re at risk,” she said. “I think we’re creating more panic and more anxiety by not telling anyone anything.”