Senators Respond: Schools Deal With Pandemic’s Impact Despite Absence of Significant State Guidance

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The following letter was sent to Karen B. Salmon, state superintendent of schools; Robert Neall, Maryland Department of Health secretary; and Jilene Chan, Maryland Department of Health acting deputy secretary:

Dear Dr. Salmon, Secretary Neall and Dr. Chan,

As our school systems continue to grapple with the impact of the pandemic, we need clear guidance, information, and protocols to keep our children and communities safe and to make sure every child in Maryland is getting the education they deserve. In the absence of federal leadership, the State should provide transparent policies, informed by data that will allow each of our 24 jurisdictions to make decisions based on the unique needs of each local community and alleviate confusion for parents, teachers, and staff.

It appears to us that two different dashboards/scorecards are being developed to track information. One that focuses primarily on health data related to a school community’s experience with COVID and another that provides important information related to matters that support the maintenance of healthy schools.

PUBLIC HEALTH DASHBOARD FOR TRANSPARENCY

Transparent systems and measures can help maintain a safe learning environment for everyone, and any statewide system requires community support for success. Timely, accurate information is critical for school-based contact tracing and for facilitating informed, responsible decision making on the part of our local school systems. The State should share data about positive COVID tests at the individual school level so that local governments, as well as parents and guardians, can make the best decisions possible to provide for the safety of all our children, teachers, and staff; and to help manage and minimize the spread of COVID in the school and surrounding community.

In Dr. Salmon and the State Board of Education’s response letter to Senator Hester (dated Oct. 20), MSDE and the Board of Education stated that they were working collaboratively to develop a public dashboard that would track “a number of critical metrics.” Dr. Salmon reiterated that point during the State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 26, stating that she was working with Dr. Chan specifically and hoped that a dashboard to track COVID -19 cases in Maryland schools would be ready the first week of November.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City)

Some states are doing more than others to track and publicly report school cases. Mississippi releases a weekly report on K-12 school-related cases by county. New York provides a dashboard that is searchable by public school, charter school or independent schools. Colorado publishes an outbreak map that includes information about school outbreaks. Minnesota’s dashboard is comprehensive (p. 33-35), as is its Safe Learning Plan, and could be used as a model of how Maryland can provide transparency and clear interpretation guidelines, while simultaneously giving authority to local school districts to adapt this tool for their specific needs.

While it is important to acknowledge the challenges associated with tracking and reporting data, privacy laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), should not be a reason for not disclosing COVID-19 cases to the public. HIPAA generally does not apply to elementary and secondary schools and does not prohibit the reporting of aggregated coronavirus case statistics.

The Student Privacy Policy Office at the U.S. Department of Education provided guidance on this subject in March 2020; they state that

  1. a school may disclose the number of students who have COVID-19 (in non-identifiable form) to parents and students in the school community without prior written consent
  2. a school may disclose the number of students who have COVID-19 in order to provide general health data to the public (including the media) without prior written consent, provided that the information the school shares does not allow for any individual student to be identified.

We are certain that transparency and protecting individuals’ privacy can both be accomplished, just as they are in the reporting of data in senior living settings. In this context, we hope that the public dashboard jointly developed by the Department of Health and MSDE will include reporting for public and private schools on:

  • Data on number of teachers, staff & students
  • Breakdown of type of teaching (in-person/online/hybrid) by institution
  • School reported COVID data of positive tests at the individual school level
  • Seven-day trend
  • Breakdown of cases within the teachers, staff and student populations

GUIDANCE ON DASHBOARD UTILIZATION AND SCHOOL SCORECARDS

The Harvard Global Health Institute has outlined guidelines for pandemic resilient teaching and learning spaces that may be considered and adapted for our systems. The brief explains, “how risk incidence levels, the creative adaptation of infection control guidelines for healthy buildings, and national investment in pandemic resilient schools can optimize operations, keep people safe, and restore our schools as trusted sites of learning in a densely populated world in which novel coronavirus and influenza epidemics are becoming increasingly frequent.”

Every jurisdiction around the State has spent significant time and resources developing their own plans in the absence of significant State guidance. To ensure the dashboard is being utilized as effectively as possible, the State should assist jurisdictions in mapping the available metrics to their decision making processes. Additionally, feedback from local school systems on the dashboard’s effectiveness as a decision making tool should be actively sought and used to refine this tool over time.

Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s)

We imagine, for example, that this scorecard would address what accommodations are being made to: 1) improve a facility’s HVAC system, including ventilation; 2) accommodate older facilities’ inability to open windows; 3) ongoing availability and accessibility of personal protection equipment for students, teachers, and staff.

As this scorecard is being discussed, we believe it is important that MSDE play an active role in supporting school systems and the work they have already put in to develop local metrics. For any metrics that are delineated in a possible MSDE/State Board of Education scorecard, we would greatly appreciate an articulation of the concrete steps the State will be taking to assist local school systems in meeting and surpassing MSDE’s expectations, including providing State technical and resource assistance.

We certainly appreciate the difficulty of your work over these past many months. Close collaboration among MSDE, the State Board of Education, and the Maryland Department of Health; and being attentive to our communities’ desire for transparency and accountability will enable Maryland to safely educate our children — even in these extraordinary circumstances. Our students deserve a first-class education and our community will be looking to all of us for a comprehensive, transparent, and data-driven plan. Thank you in advance for your thoughtful response, and we look forward to working with you on these concerns.

— SENS. BILL FERGUSON, PAUL PINSKY, SHELLY HETTLEMAN, KATIE FRY HESTER, SARAH ELFRETH, JIM ROSAPEPE, JEFF WALDSTREICHER AND CRAIG ZUCKER

The writers are all Democrats. Ferguson is president of the Maryland Senate and Pinsky is chair of the Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee.