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GFPS clarifies protocol for releasing COVID-19 data

Posted at 6:42 PM, Sep 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-17 22:00:50-04

GREAT FALLS — The Cascade City-County Health Department announced on Thursday morning that they will update the community every day on positive COVID-19 cases in the school district — the department will not, however, release any personally identifiable information, in accordance with federal and state privacy laws.

In daily updates on the CCHD website, school-specific information will not be made available, at least for right now. But you can still find school-specific information — including which schools have positive cases, how many cases were confirmed, and whether they involved students or staff — on the Montana Department of Health & Human Services website. Governor Steve Bullock made the announcement about the state's data reporting protocols on Wednesday (details).

In a Facebook post earlier on Thursday, GFPS made a statement verbatim to the one from CCHD, saying the district would not post school-specific information daily. That post was deleted later in the day and replaced with a statement saying "data will be relayed to parents and GFPS staff on [the district's] website and Facebook page in two forms." Those forms will be through weekly updates with school-specific information from MT DPHHS, and in daily updates without school-specific information from CCHD.

The state will release school-specific information on Wednesdays for schools with more than 50 students. The information will be more vague at schools with fewer than 50 students, and even more vague for schools with 10 or fewer students, to protect the private information of students in rural schools, where it's easier for students to be identified based on personal characteristics.

GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore said the CCHD — which the district relies on for case reporting and contact tracing — had already drafted a statement on Wednesday about not releasing school-specific information. CCHD didn’t update the statement after the governor announced the new data release protocols later in the day.

“There was some miscommunication around that, and the timing wasn’t ideal,” he said. “We’ll correct that, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to release accurate information by school.”

Moore said the district takes the job of keeping parents and families informed very seriously, and the district will refer them to the state’s weekly updates for school-specific data.

It comes as the state reported 17 confirmed coronavirus cases in the district on Wednesday. Great Falls High School students are back to school this week for in-person learning after more coronavirus cases prompted two days of temporary remote learning, and more coronavirus cases have been confirmed at two elementary schools: Meadowlark, where two staff members tested positive, and Whittier, where one student tested positive.

The news has left some parents wondering if they’ll have to juggle the challenges of remote learning all over again. Moore said although there isn’t a specific number that will prompt the district to temporarily close an elementary school, if an elementary closure happens, it will hopefully be short-term.

“School closure, whether it’s temporary or longterm, puts a tremendous burden on parents who have to work,” he said.

Tom Moore extended interview

The CCHD posted the following information on Facebook on Thursday evening:

  • Going forward, CCHD and Great Falls Public Schools are working to align with Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services on the school information that can be shared.
  • For the sake of transparency, the State has made the decision to begin reporting information about cases in schools on a weekly basis. Protections are built in to ensure privacy for smaller schools. CCHD will share Cascade County-relevant information released by the State.
  • The information provided by State health officials does not publicly display health data about individual children or staff. It simply provides parents, teachers, and the interested public with general data about whether there are positive cases associated with particular schools.
  • For schools with over 50 students, both the number of positive students and the number of positive staff will be shared, along with the name of the school and the county where it is located. For schools with between 11 and 50 students (such as rural county schools), the number of students and staff tested positive will be shared, but data released will not distinguish between students and staff. For schools with 10 or fewer students, there will be no reporting in order to ensure the protection of individual privacy.
  • For daily updates, CCHD will be sharing the number of new, positive cases in Cascade County, along with a brief summary of any new cases associated with Great Falls Public Schools. This will be in the form of a list, with sex and age range listed for students, as well as total number of positive adults.

Cascade County has reported a cumulative total of 483 cases as of Thursday morning, an increase of two from yesterday. Of those, 253 are listed as recovered, 225 are currently listed as active, and five people have died.