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As a part of their information given to staff and parents in a message Friday, Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel said that they would start releasing COVID infection numbers of district staff and students weekly.

It represents a significant shift in approach to disclosure of district-wide numbers. Previously, the district refused requests from Free Press for a count of infections.

Numbers reported

Superintendent Sean McDaniel sent an email announcing big changes to activities in the district. He said that starting Friday, the district will report COVID infection and quarantine district-wide numbers weekly.

The district reported that there are 17 staff “self-reported cases” with 58 in quarantine from “close contacts.”

No student cases were reported by the district but three were in quarantine.

Except for saying the cases were “self-reported,” OKCPS has not given any other methods or criteria for counting district-wide cases.

Changing course

Free Press has asked for aggregate infection numbers in the district but was denied.

We asked for numbers of infections during a district Q&A with the media August 28. “We’ll have to get back with you on that,” answered McDaniel.

The same day we received an email from the Media Relations Department Manager Crystal Raymond.

“OKCPS has chosen not to release data related to the number of positive cases among employees or students at this time as it is considered to be confidential personnel information and/or is protected by FERPA and HIPAA,” Raymond wrote.

HIPAA, or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was passed in 1966. FERPA, or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, was passed in 1974.

The district’s approach to non-disclosure of aggregate numbers was problematic. It represents a common misinterpretation of federal law by school administrations.

Sometimes, it is done as cover for withholding information that administrators may consider to be embarrassing.

Other districts have been withholding their infection numbers, too.

A quick scan of the listing of school districts’ infection numbers compiled and reported by Robby Korth of StateImpact shows that other districts are trying to keep their numbers quiet.

Misuse of law

In fact, it has been widely known for years that aggregate numbers without personally identifiable information (PII) are not restricted from public disclosure certainly under FERPA and in most circumstances under HIPAA.

Both sets of laws are meant to codify how much PII is to be released by institutions to third parties and under what circumstances. FERPA applies to individual student school records and HIPAA applies to the medical information of individuals.

For example, if aggregate numbers were not allowed by FERPA, reports by districts to the State Department of Education would be prohibited. But, every year districts report those numbers and they are published by the SDE.

Hospitals or the State Department of Health would not be able to publish aggregate numbers of infections if HIPAA prohibited that kind of reporting.

Neither sets of laws are new or should be unfamiliar to institutions.


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UPDATE, 9-28-20: In the original version of this report we used Moore Public Schools as an example of a district that had not reported it’s COVID infections. The reference has been taken down because later in the day we found that they had reported their numbers to one local publication the week before.