COVID19 FERPA Community and Student Privacy
Americans have been inundated with numerous Federal announcements. Americans were told they shouldn’t worry, and it is nothing, you can get it and go on to work, but these announcements were made while the number of American patients and deaths simply continued to grow. As the truth began to unfold, it left citizens confused about whom they could trust, and panic has set in.
The coronavirus (SARS2 – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome 2) and COVID-19 are the names given to this new novel virus that is causing a global pandemic. It is part of a class of zoonotic viruses, which means that they originated in animals and have transferred to humans. There are many types of coronaviruses; this happens to be a new novel virus that there is no known immunity to, no vaccine as of yet, and no cure.
In the midst of the many announcements, one may have missed some significant ones regarding children and students of all ages when it comes to handling their health information in conjunction with their educational records. Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has made some significant announcements on her own. On March 12, 2020, she released additional resources for educators to assist them in understanding, complying, and further protecting students and their privacy. She also made available specific programs to assist in providing students with disabilities continued access to education and other provisions during this health crisis.
The goal of some of these provisions is to guarantee access for disabled students to continue receiving much-needed services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). At the same time, schools across the nation are closed for an undetermined amount of time due to the coronavirus outbreak. Secretary Devos also gave guidance on compliance with national security, public health officials, FERPA, and HIPAA laws to protect both the public and the privacy of students’ educational records.
Devos advised complying with all the agencies, by allowing schools to work with public health officials to discuss COVID-19 related health inquiries, while still keeping the educational portion of the students’ records safe. Complying both with national security and public health to maintain community safety for all students and adults in the local population, but create a sense of security and protection for the students by letting them and their parents understand that their educational records were not going to be disclosed as part of the COVID-19 data.
Coronavirus & Schools
As the coronavirus is spreading across the United States, protecting both communities and children are a high priority. On Monday, March 16, 2020, it was advised that schools be closed temporarily on a national level. The White House has called for families to stay at home and on quarantine with their children, and homeschool if at all possible. This stunned millions of families who have jobs and are trying to juggle how to pay bills, keep their families safe, and now, will have to add how to care for their children at home and continue their education on their own.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added solemn statements that sounded like a dreadful warning. He stated that everyone needs to understand that this will be a defining global health crisis for our planet. He said it wasn’t just the days and weeks ahead, but we have months ahead of where everyone must do their part to fight the spread of this disease. He went on to explain that these may be minor inconveniences, but as a community, for entire countries, and the whole world, it will be a test: of our strength, our resolve, our trust in science, and our solidarity as humankind.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA is a Federal law that applies to all schools that receive funds from programs through the U.S. Department of Education. FERPA was developed to protect the privacy of education records of students. While FERPA is designated to protect the privacy of students, parents are given certain rights to these records. Once the student reaches the age of 18, these rights transfer to the adult student or “eligible student.”
The move by Secretary Devos was not to allow this national emergency to override the privacy of students. While there are built-in emergency exceptions, she felt that too many students could be compromised. She is instead encouraging schools to continue to comply with local health officials only in the area pertaining to discussions of COVID-19. As with any communicable pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as other designated agencies have the right to know who has been diagnosed and whom they may have had contact with; in this case, it may be other students or teachers. What Devos was attempting to do was direct schools and educational administrations to try to comply with both regulations. Comply with the health and safety issues with designated health officials regarding sick students or those who may have had contact, but their educational records are off-limits.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA is the federal patient health information privacy regulation that was passed by the 106th Congress in 1996. HIPAA primarily controls the flow of personal healthcare information as providers, health insurance, and others necessitate the sharing of data to serve the needs of the patient. It is designed primarily to protect the privacy of the patient and their medical information from abuse and fraud.
There are exceptions. During declared pandemics and national emergencies, certain agencies can override HIPAA compliance and access patient records without their consent. These agencies can be local health officials, for example, as they attempt to find victims or infected contacts of another sick individual. It does not mean that the information can be misused, but that it can be accessed. It can also be available in some circumstances via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but may only pertain to that portion of the patient’s record.
The General Director of the World Health Organization said it quite emphatically. Everyone who needs a test should be tested. Making tests available to everyone is paramount. At a news briefing in Geneva, he went on to say this, “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”
He is right. As long as tests are not made available, Americans have no idea the amount of the spread here in the U.S. Some studies have shown that up to 80% of those living in the U.S. will become infected. We could lose a projection of millions of lives. Testing is the only way to know for sure and to get ready for the number of people who will need hospitalization.
Compliance & Safty
Closing schools is just one step to complying with government safety instructions to prevent the spread of this disease. Social distancing, hand washing, sterilizing, and staying in quarantined areas may be painful, but maybe the only activities that can keep families and students safe.
Parents may be overwhelmed with the idea of homeschooling. Some, once started, may find it a better fit for their otherwise busy lives. Parents don’t have to be experts at everything to provide quality education at home.
Depending on the state you live in, there can be different requirements to homeschool your children permanently. Indiana requires that you register as a private school. Each state will have its own set of rules, so if parents find they enjoy this new form of education, it is possible to incorporate it into their lives, and their children receive full accreditation for the work they are doing.
Online homeschool programs are becoming extremely popular, which happened even before the crisis. K12.com is one such program that offers free homeschooling and materials to students via a portal and gives access to teachers via facetime. Other creative ideas can come from the student and parent together when they find areas that the child is extremely interested in. If your child is a science and space bug, then turn to NASA.com for help. For many years, NASA has provided free educational materials, teaching guides, and other programs to schools, homeschoolers, and interested students. At times, they even have great posters that they send out for free. Yes, free. Homeschooling can be about spending time with your child, but it also allows for a more creative educational environment.
While the zoos may be closed currently, consider this, suppose you are covering mammals or other life science. Most zookeepers offer programs to help with teaching these concepts, not just from books, but by having kids get their hands dirty. The Indianapolis Zoo offers a mammal discussion that includes allowing children to learn to bathe an elephant. They also have an impressive insect collection for those budding scientists and a dolphin show where they are willing to work with parents and homeschoolers. It is a matter of reaching out, placing a call, and just asking. Many of these places are excited to have a receptive audience. Incorporating life and all that is offered in the world through in a hands-on way, along with book studies, is a far more effective way of teaching youth than having them sit in a room and simply take tests. Good luck to all the families. Stay safe and healthy, and reach out to the many resources for help with your new-found educational needs.