Your right to know: State should name schools with Covid-19 cases

By JONATHAN ANDERSON

Here are some questions for parents to ponder:

Do you care if your kids get COVID-19?

Do you want to be able to stay informed about coronavirus cases in your community?

Jonathan Anderson

Should officials responsible for public health and education be held accountable for how they respond (or fail to respond) to the pandemic?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may find it troubling that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services does not name which schools have COVID-19 cases. Go to the agency’s Facility-Wide Public Health Investigations website and you’ll instead find aggregate numbers of case investigations for de-identified “educational facilities,” which cover daycare centers, schools, colleges and universities.

The state knows the identities of schools, so why conceal them? I asked DHS spokesperson Jennifer Miller, who said in an email that her agency defers to local authorities to “make the best decisions for their communities.” That means it reports outbreaks in schools the same way it reports outbreaks in most other facilities: as overall numbers by county or region.

“We see no public health value in releasing the names of the school districts with active cases of COVID-19,” Miller wrote.

That latter point surprised me. There is no public health value in knowing which schools have COVID-19 cases?

Really?

Then why do some school districts voluntarily disclose school-specific case data? Why does the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest news organization, devote substantial time and resources to independently tracking cases in schools around the state and posting that data online? Why do some other states, including Minnesota, New York, Idaho and Tennessee, centrally report cases in their school systems?

All of these players recognize the obvious value in knowing which schools have COVID-19 cases.

To be fair, DHS has deployed robust tools to help the public and press track the general spread and severity of COVID-19. Data pages on the agency’s website show the number of confirmed cases and the trajectory of those cases over time. The site also shows regional hospitalization rates, including the number of ICU beds and ventilators in use.

But the state’s refusal to identify specific schools with COVID-19 cases suggests a more pernicious problem: that officials don’t trust parents and students to have easy public access to information that could put schools or administrators in a negative light.

On April 29, in the early weeks of the pandemic, DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm touted the availability of outbreak information on the agency’s website, writing in a press release: “Data are one of our most critical tools to better understand and fight COVID-19. It is important that we share this information with the public so they understand how we are making decisions about our response to COVID-19, as well as better understand how this virus is impacting different areas of Wisconsin.”

I couldn’t agree more. Palm should follow through by posting on the DHS website the names of all schools with COVID-19 cases and the severity of such cases.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Council member Jonathan Anderson is a former Wisconsin journalist and current Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.

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