Important COVID-related Legal Guidance

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Important COVID-related Legal Guidance

Aug. 31, 2020

We want to update you on the reporting of cases concerning individuals who have tested positive and/or been exposed to COVID-19, and also remind you of existing requirements and protocols relating to quarantining and contact tracing. 

Reporting of Cases & Case Investigations

We have worked with the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) and the Oklahoma Attorney General to ensure you receive information relating to individuals at your school(s) who may have COVID-19, or may have been exposed to it. In the event of a positive test result or as part of an ongoing investigation of a COVID-19 case, state and/or local health officials will contact you directly as soon as they have the test result. 

In addition to these communications, OSDE and OSDH request your assistance in immediately notifying health officials (local/county health departments) and the OSDE of known positive cases and exposures in your school(s), as you may be made aware of this information before health officials. This reporting does not take the place of communication you will receive from health officials relating to positive cases and case investigations. Rather, this notification is required under State law, and school districts must immediately notify the local/county health department. See 63 O.S. § 6303(B).

We encourage all schools to aid local/county health departments in public investigations, which includes providing key information such as contact information for school personnel who have tested positive or been exposed. Additionally, as part of this work, OSDE will soon be releasing to you a mechanism by which you will report to OSDE case counts of known positives and exposures in your school. 

You may be wondering whether FERPA prohibits you from sharing this information required under state law. The best approach is to have a written and signed release of information (ROI) authorizing you to release information to appropriate officials or, in these instances, health officials with local and state health departments. Without an ROI, school districts may also disclose information related to a COVID-19 case in limited circumstances. Once such circumstance authorized under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is where a health and safety emergency exists. Under this exception, educational agencies and institutions are permitted to disclose, without prior written consent, PII (personally identifiable information) from student education records to appropriate parties (such as local and county health officials) in connection with an emergency, if knowledge of that information is necessary to protect the health or safety of a student or other individuals. See 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(b)(1)(I); 34 C.F.R. §§ 99.31(a)(10) and 99.36. Information disclosed should be limited in nature and only to appropriate health officials.

We understand that districts are actively communicating information relating to exposures, but we want to take this opportunity to continue encouraging districts to examine this exception and share information with appropriate state and local health officials to control and mitigate additional exposure of COVID-19. Additional information relating to this health and safety exception can be found on page 40 of the OSDE’s Frequently Asked Questions.

Contact Tracing

When a person tests positive, they can expect a phone call from health officials within 48 hours. The OSDH has trained staff who phone individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 and determine whom they may have been in contact with and potentially exposed. Schools should not initiate contract tracing efforts prior to reporting cases and exposures to health officials. That in no way diminishes the critical importance that you will play in contact tracing. In fact, to ensure effective, prompt and consistent communication, we ask that you identify a point of contact for your school district for purposes of contact tracing. Your Regional Accreditation Officer will contact you to collect the best contact information for the point(s) of contact within your district.

Isolation & Quarantine

We continue to receive questions regarding quarantining and isolation of sick students and personnel. We again want to emphasize the requirements being followed by our state and local county health departments. Your compliance will make the process smoother for all those involved.

Oklahoma law prohibits an individual having a communicable disease from attending a public or private school. See 63 O.S. § 1-507. Consistent with this, the law places a duty on families and school officials to isolate and exclude individuals from coming to school until the expiration of the period of isolation or quarantine, or until permission has been granted by a local health official. As such, if families and/or school officials have knowledge of their student having tested positive for COVID-19, the family and school must prohibit the individual from coming to school until the end of the quarantine or isolation period.

These procedures are also to be applied to individuals who are known to be close contacts of positive cases of COVID-19 and have had a risk of exposure. This applies to staff as well, including those deemed essential. On August 18, 2020, in advisory and non-binding guidance, the U.S. Office of Homeland Security designated certain members of the workforce as being employed in critical infrastructure. We want to emphasize that this guidance is non-binding, and while districts may designate personnel as essential, that designation does not supersede authority of health officials in state law. Under 63 O.S. § 1-504, public health officials are authorized to require students and school personnel who have tested positive or been exposed to quarantine at home. Exceptions for quarantine or isolation will not be made for school personnel, even if they are considered essential.

As your schools open for the 2020-21 school year and you implement your COVID-19 plans, adapting them as necessary when new information becomes available, the OSDE strongly encourages districts to adhere to health protocols and established guidance. For further information relating to established health protocols and guidance, please consult OSDE’s Return to Learn Oklahoma guidance. Good health – individually and collectively in the community – is better than a perfect attendance record or a few days of participation in an extracurricular activity, and is certainly more important than exposing others to a communicable disease. Please join us in collectively preventing and controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Thank you for your cooperation and assistance.