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Baraboo School District refuses to disclose number of COVID-19 cases
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Baraboo School District refuses to disclose number of COVID-19 cases

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Citing privacy concerns, the Baraboo School District will not publicly divulge the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases — at least not until they are numerous enough to prevent community members from being able to identify the individuals involved.

Michael Julka of Boardman Clark, the district’s legal counsel, advised school officials Wednesday to prioritize student and staff privacy rights over transparency with the public. If the district were to report that one employee tested positive, others would know who it was based on who was absent for two weeks to quarantine, according to his legal opinion.

District Administrator Lori Mueller shared Julka’s opinion with the News Republic in an email Thursday after two requests for it.

“Obviously, if the number of positive cases increases it becomes more difficult to identify specific individuals, but not that much more difficult,” Julka wrote. “It might be different if the District closes completely to in person instruction or if a particular school building closes because then everyone is home and people will not be able to tell if a ‘specific’ person is missing.”

In the same email, Mueller declined to set a threshold at which she would report case numbers.

“Upon review, you will note that it is difficult to articulate a specific threshold to begin reporting publicly,” she said. “The District wants to be as transparent as possible within these legal parameters and will continue to weigh changing information to determine when best to share publicly.”

Other area school districts have volunteered case numbers. In Wisconsin Dells, the district administrator reported Monday that two individuals within Spring Hill Elementary School tested positive. Last week, the Portage School District informed families that four individuals within the district had the virus, causing a temporary switch to virtual learning for all seventh-grade students.

The Sauk County Health Department announced in August that a person who attended the School District of Reedsburg’s district-wide school registration event tested positive.

School board discussion

At Monday’s Baraboo School Board meeting, member Nancy Thome requested the number of known COVID-19 cases within the district since Sept. 1.

Baraboo reconsiders school reopening plan (copy) (copy)

Baraboo School Board member Nancy Thome speaks during the Aug. 10 school board meeting at Baraboo High School. This week, she asked the district administrator to seek legal counsel on whether the district should publicly report its number of COVID-19 cases.

Mueller expressed hesitation, saying the number is currently small enough that people could figure out a student’s identity in some cases, “but we will be at a point relatively soon where we can start sharing just general numbers where I think it would be easier — where you can’t trace who that is.”

When Thome asked how people would know who the individuals are if the district shares a number and not whether they’re students or staff members, Mueller pointed to conjecture on Facebook that she said could give away identities.

Mueller urged people, especially those with connections to the district who fear they may have been exposed to the virus, to understand that Sauk County Health officials decide who in any given situation needs to quarantine.

“If people are not hearing from us or Sauk County Public Health, then there’s not something to be concerned about specific to their health and safety, and what we’ve asked our staff to do is trust that when we can communicate that out, we will be communicating that out,” Mueller said. “We’re not trying to hide anything or hold anything back — we’re just responding in conjunction with Sauk County Public Health on when we make those notifications.”

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Thome, an attorney, said she doesn’t understand how a few cases among roughly 3,000 students and almost 700 staff members could be seen as identifying anyone.

“I don’t think it’s our responsibility as a district to worry about what people are gossiping about on Facebook, but I think we as a board have oversight responsibility, and I feel like it’s important to know,” Thome said.

Mueller told Thome she would ask the district’s legal counsel for an opinion.

Privacy considerations

Julka said he and Mueller spoke Wednesday morning about the issue but couldn’t share his opinion directly with the News Republic due to attorney-client privilege.

In the message Mueller shared, Julka cited the Americans with Disabilities Act with protecting employee medical information and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and a state statute with protecting students’ personal information.

Families that need to be informed of possible exposure to the virus “should be communicated with directly,” he wrote. “FERPA rights for students and ADA rights for staff should prevail in all communications. The District should avoid creating communications that result in others then trying to speculate ‘who’ might be positive.”

Symptoms and exposure protocol

Students and school staff who test positive or had “confirmed exposure” — meaning they were within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for at least 15 minutes, per Sauk County Health guidelines — are required to quarantine for 14 days, or, if they test positive, isolate at home for 10 days after their first symptoms or positive test, as long as symptoms have been improving and that have not had a fever for at least 24 hours without the aid of medication. That protocol is according to a flow chart provided in the Monday board packet.

The district’s school nurses, Rebecca Christiansen, Laura O’Leary and Katie Brescia, worked on developing the protocol, which was approved by the county health department last week, said Student Services Director Michele Yates-Wickus.

If a student has symptoms but doesn’t get tested, they have to stay home for 10 days after the onset of symptoms or until released by a doctor’s note, according to the chart. Similar restrictions are placed on students and staff who are asymptomatic but have a symptomatic family member.

Mueller told the board the district was still “in a good spot” as of Monday to continue operating with in-person classes given the reduced capacity with almost one-quarter of students learning remotely.

Health officer: Sauk County coronavirus metrics improve, but precautions still necessary

Sauk County Health Officer Tim Lawther has eschewed giving specific numbers at which schools would need to close. He offered metrics based on four factors to help with the decision and said he will make a recommendation if he thinks the district or any of its schools should close.

However, the health department released notification guidelines in August. According to that document, the department will tell parents and staff within a specific district when that district has twice as many positive cases as schools in a 28-day period, unless officials determine the exposure risk was minimal. The entire community will be informed when more than one school is involved in the outbreak.

When there’s more than a minimal exposure risk, the guidelines call for districts to notify all parents and staff when there is at least one case within a classroom; two or more cases within a grade within 28 days; or two or more cases within a school within 28 days. The department recommends they inform all parents, students and staff across the district in those situations.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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