The Tennessee Department of Education launched a database tracking COVID-19 cases in schools on Wednesday after an initial delay in data processing.
That decision comes after weeks of pressure from parents across the state as children head back to school amid the pandemic. The dashboard will update once a week with positive case numbers among students and staff and can be sorted by county, region or school district.
“Tennessee has led the way in supporting districts for a safe return to school, opening classrooms for the new school year, and now providing the public with information around how COVID-19 may be impacting their school communities through a district-populated dashboard,” TDOE Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a press release. “This dashboard strikes an important balance in protecting student privacy while providing parents, educators and community members with information they need to make the best possible decisions for their families.”
Parents and families can view the dashboard at https://districtinformation.tnedu.gov/covid-information/search/-1. Some districts have not reported their numbers yet, but both Wilson County Schools and the Lebanon Special School District submitted case counts.
According to the data released Wednesday, WCS had 14 students and less than five staff test positive for the virus last week, while LSSD had six students and 0 staff test positive over the same period. School-level data will be listed if the numbers rise above five for a single building.
“I know there’s been a push for some transparency, and I was informed the past week that we needed to start sending TDOE the positive test numbers,” Wilson County Schools Health Services Supervisor Chuck Whitlock said. “There’s a portal where I will be doing that every week.”
Whitlock said the district has seen 57 positive cases among students and staff since the school year began on Aug. 17, while LSSD has not given a total number at press time.
“We’re mostly following the Tennessee Department of Health’s playbook on how to respond to a positive case, so our nurses and administrators are doing a lot of contact tracing,” he said. “It’s basically become a full-time job.”
Lebanon Special School District Director Scott Benson said last week marked the first time the district did not have to quarantine several students after a positive test since it opened on Aug. 10.
“In previous weeks we’ve had some positive test results and exposures where we had to shut down a classroom or half of a classroom, and last week we didn’t have to do that,” Benson said. “I don’t know that I would predict it trending down at this point, but one thing we’ve been doing as a district is if we have a situation where we have to quarantine a group we’ll immediately reach out to all our shareholders through a message system and let them know.”
Benson said that system has so far kept LSSD from having to close down any schools entirely, and the district plans to continue its current system once the dashboard launches.
Wilson County Schools Public Information Officer Bart Barker said there are concerns within the district about whether the dashboard violates the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but TDOE is confident in moving forward.
According to a joint document published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, students’ health records are protected under FERPA. However, they can be disclosed without consent during an emergency “if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.”
“The sharing of student information is stringently protected under the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and protecting personally identifiable information of our youngest Tennesseans is critically important,” TDOE said in a press release announcing the dashboard. “To ensure protections of individual privacy, schools with fewer than 50 students will not be reported in the dashboard. For schools reporting under five positive student or employee COVID-19 cases, the school will be listed without a specific number of cases for the category.”
TDOE expects the dashboard to be an important resource for both parents and state officials now that all 147 of Tennessee’s school districts have reopened.