College parties, student activities or simple co-mingling — even if precautions were taken — have caused COVID-19 cases to rise on campuses around the U.S. since the school year began.
For Northeast Nebraska students, staff and families, the number of positive cases at local colleges won’t be available, at least for now.
At this time, Northeast Community College’s number of positive COVID-19 cases won’t be reported to the public and Wayne State College is still deciding whether to release its data, said representatives from both institutions.
Both colleges have voiced concerns about being too small to release positive case numbers and that doing so would violate student and staff privacy.
With only about 30% of classes at Northeast being in person, reporting numbers might identify which students have COVID-19, said Jim Curry, director of public relations.
“With fewer students enrolled in face-to-face classes and fewer employees working on the campuses, there is the possibility that the identity of the person who tests positive could be revealed, thus a potential infringement of their privacy,” Curry said in an email. “Moreover, most Northeast students are enrolled in virtual or online courses. They may not step foot on any of the college’s campuses, let alone step foot in the state of Nebraska.”
While both Northeast and Wayne State began classes Aug. 17, Wayne moved forward with complete in-person instruction unless a class had been designated online before the semester started.
Wayne State administrators are still discussing whether to release the college’s COVID-19 data, said Jay Collier, director of college relations.
“Because we are so small, even though health information might be released in a way a name isn’t attached, it would be easy to figure out who those people were,” Collier said. “We are concerned if we do any kind of reporting how that might violate HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).”
Other schools around the U.S. also are citing this reason not to release data, but the HIPAA Privacy Rule applies only to “covered entities,” which include health plans and health care providers that transmit information in electronic form in connection with covered transactions, according to the Office of Civil Rights.
This doesn’t apply to most postsecondary institutions. But even if an institution is a covered entity, most still are not subject to HIPAA because the student health information they maintain is kept as part of their “education records” or “treatment records,” as those terms are defined under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, according to the Office of Civil Rights.
But even FERPA does not bar schools from releasing details about coronavirus cases, the U.S. Department of Education said in its own guidance in March. Schools may provide basic information as long as it doesn't identify specific students.
Reporting protocols seem to vary among colleges around Nebraska.
Creighton University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Concordia University, Doane University, Nebraska Wesleyan University and Hastings College have all released their positive cases either through public releases or website databases that track COVID-19 on campuses.
Chadron State College and Peru State College, which are both a part of the Nebraska State College System (NSCS) like Wayne State, have reported current case numbers as well.
Judi Yorges, the director of external relations and communications at NSCS, said the system’s three colleges each have individual plans for releasing COVID-19 data.
“Wayne State is working with the local health district to find the right balance of transparency and privacy as they find the most accurate method to share the number of cases,” she said in an email.
Midland University is also one of the Nebraska schools that has refrained from releasing information so far. It announced it would follow the local health department’s communication guidelines when sharing data, according to its website.
Both Northeast and Wayne State report to their local health department when a COVID-19 case arises on campus.
The department performs a contact tracing process to identify which students or staff need to quarantine if they were in close contact with the positive individual. The colleges and health departments then work together to notify those involved and help assist with quarantining or isolating students or staff.
“Now, things can certainly change, but for now, Northeast Community College has chosen to report to the local public health departments, not with a number on its website or within a news release,” Curry said. “If there would be a large outbreak, Northeast would consult with its local public health departments in how that would be communicated.”
Adam Smith, a senior at Wayne State, said he understands the debate behind releasing data.
“I would personally prefer they do release numbers, so it would alleviate rumors going around that aren’t true,” he said. “But we do have to keep in mind student privacy and rights. You have to find a balance in those two things, so I understand the dilemma.”
Mary Carroll, a sophomore at Northeast, said she didn’t know that Northeast chose not to release its numbers. About half of Carroll’s classes are in person.
“I feel like it's kind of smart because it would probably spark a panic if people saw numbers are rising on campus,” Carroll said about Northeast’s protocol. “I don’t really see the need, I guess, to worry people unnecessarily; I trust our administrators to make decisions on our safety based on the numbers they see.”
The decision whether to release data is ultimately up to each individual school, said Julie Rother, health director of the Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department, which covers Wayne.
“Honestly, I don’t know about college campuses, but among health directors, we have had numerous conversations about how deep do we drill to release data,” Rother said. “Generally, if this wasn’t a pandemic, we wouldn’t even be releasing numbers down to the county, just the health district. But the pandemic does change a lot of things.”