As a growing number of students return to in-person instruction, state leaders have decided to leave it solely to districts to decide whether to notify parents and the community about COVID-19 cases within school walls.

The policy has created an inconsistent patchwork notification system statewide. Some Oklahoma districts aggressively report any known student COVID cases while others refuse to inform even their own teachers about cases of the deadly virus.

Advocates said the lack of coherent policy is creating a culture of distrust and confusion. And, it’s leading to concerns about how transparent districts are being about COVID-19 as some families and staff increasingly rely on rumors, incomplete information or even haphazardly thrown together media reports that lack key details about potential exposure risks.

“It is causing a lot of questions and confusion when some districts won’t put out that they have had any cases at all when teachers know that there have been cases,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “It does cause concern for educators who are looking at those reports and seeing that their district hasn’t reported that they’ve had any cases.”

Priest said her association is fielding questions daily asking why districts are withholding information about COVID-19 cases within school buildings. She said educators are “a little bit alarmed” to learn of COVID-19 cases from colleagues or media reports instead of district leaders.

She said some districts have told teachers that they’ll only be notified about COVID-19 cases in their buildings if they were in close contact to the patient for 15 minutes.

Under existing state law, districts are only mandated to notify local and county health departments of known positive cases in schools along with any possible exposures. That's because they may become aware of positive cases even before health officials, according to a written policy released by the State Department of Education.

The state agency plans to provide districts a mechanism to report case counts of known positives and exposures in schools. In the meantime, it has provided some suggestions on how to correspond with families and the community about cases.

“Our focus is the health, safety, and security of students, teachers and staff in the school building,” said Joy Hofmeister, state superintendent. “That’s why we are working with the Oklahoma State Department of Health to develop a streamlined process for reporting positive COVID-19 cases. Many districts including Enid, Bartlesville, Tulsa-Union and others already are fully transparent with regard to positive cases or instances of quarantine. Our position is that more information is always better.”

The state Department of Health leaves it up to individual districts to decide how much information to release publicly. Those who have potentially been exposed to a patient are contacted and notified by health officials, said Dr. Jared Taylor, the state’s epidemiologist.

“We’re not going to go out into the town square and broadcast to people who have haven’t been contacted and say, ‘Hey, just so you known, somebody on Broad Street had COVID,’” Taylor said. “That’s not our role, and that’s not what we’re going to do, and we kind of see that the same with schools. If they had a contact, then we’re going to notify anyone who had contact. If they didn’t have a contact, then it’s up to the schools to decide how they want to manage and report that to the other parents.”

He said some districts have gotten “a little overzealous” in notifying the public and saying students are quarantined when health officials haven’t actually ordered that.

While, the state agency has been working with districts to ensure there’s an open line of communication, health officials are “just trying to not get out of our lane,” Taylor said.

The State Department of Health does not have any estimate on how many COVID-19 cases have been linked directly to schools, Taylor said.

Tracking spread and case numbers in schools is complex.

With the amount of ongoing community spread, he said it’s very rare that health officials can link COVID-19 transmission solely to school. And just because someone who attends a school contracts the disease doesn’t mean anyone in the building was actually exposed.

Generic school case reporting doesn’t tease out the potential exposure risks for the community, he said.

“I think that the parents deserve to know what’s happening in their community and what has the potential for walking into that school,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to provide that transparency with our data reporting at the county and zip code levels.”

Districts are working very closely to communicate with parents and health care officials about COVID-19 cases and the repercussions, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the State School Boards Association.

Early on, schools were perhaps very broad in communicating the first few COVID-19 cases, but now some are seeing cases among students who are only attending virtually or in districts with upwards of 40,000 students, he said. Districts are grappling with whether to notify the community about cases in students that haven’t actually exposed anyone else in the building or aren’t even attending in-person.

“You don’t want to spread concern and fear when there is no opportunity for community spread in the school,” Hime said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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