Iowa school districts pare back COVID-19 reporting to parents

By: - September 23, 2021 4:36 pm
Rear view of students sitting with hands raised in classroom

A teacher stands in front of a classroom as students raise their hands. (Photo by Getty Images)

Several central Iowa school districts have changed how they report COVID-19 information this school year, giving parents less detailed information about positive cases as the delta variant spreads.

West Des Moines Community Schools, a 9,000-student district with 13 schools, did contact tracing last year. Superintendent Lisa Remy said school administrators would send letters to the parents of children who sat close to a COVID-positive student in class. They would determine how long the students sat together and whether the students wore masks.

Now, the district reports just the grade level of the positive case without specifying the classroom of the student. Remy said they made the change because state guidance had changed, and school districts needed to be cautious of violating student privacy laws.

Jen Haidar, a West Des Moines mom and mental health therapist, said it was “frustrating” to make decisions based on grade-level information. Her daughter, an 11-year-old attending sixth grade at Crossroads Park Elementary, caught COVID-19 earlier this month.

“All the information is so vague. I think that’s one of the most frustrating parts is we don’t have the information that we need to make good, informed decisions for the family,” Haidar said.

Haidar said her daughter had been wearing a mask to school every day before she woke up on a Saturday morning with COVID-19 symptoms. A test confirmed that the sixth-grader, just a few months away from being eligible for the vaccine, had contracted the virus.

“She was so upset just thinking about, ‘What if I spread this to other people?’ and ‘How did this happen to me, I’ve been so careful?’ ” Haidar said.

The Haidar family emailed the class about the COVID-19 case. Several families replied that they would take their children to get COVID tests. As of Sept. 17, Haidar was aware of at least three other students in the class who tested positive.

Haidar said her daughter’s teacher was also out sick that week, though it was unclear whether she had COVID-19.

On Sept. 17, WDMCS reported 13 new cases at Crossroads Park Elementary, the highest of any school in the district for that week.

Haidar’s daughter recovered quickly from the virus and returned to school this week. But Haidar says the school should be doing more to inform parents about positive cases in the classroom, not just by grade level.

“I just would like to see a more community-focused approach in which there is transparency between all the stakeholders in the school,” Haidar said.

Privacy vs. public health: School districts reporting less detailed information this year

West Des Moines is one of several Iowa school districts to shift their COVID-19 tracking and reporting procedures for this school year. Remy said the governor’s emergency proclamation last year required the school to track cases closely and do contact tracing. She said the district shifted its policy due under updated proclamations from the governor and a new definition of COVID-19.

The Iowa Department of Public Health changed its guidelines in May to classify COVID-19 as a childhood illness, like the flu, head lice or chicken pox.

“Since we are no longer under that, it’s being treated like a childhood illness,” Remy said. “And legally, based on what our attorneys have shared with us, this is as far as we can go as far as reporting to families.”

IDPH did not respond to repeated requests for comment about what the state’s guidelines are for reporting COVID-19 cases in school, but Director Kelly Garcia said in early September that it’s up to school districts to decide whether to report COVID-19 cases at all. IDPH also did not respond to questions about whether classifying COVID as a childhood illness would affect what schools can legally report to parents.

The Waukee Community School District took a similar approach to West Des Moines. Last academic year, Waukee schools notified parents by classroom of positive cases. Now, cases are just identified by grade level. District spokesperson Amy Varcoe said that the change was meant to protect student privacy.

“Because the ‘n’ size of our classrooms is small and one student could be out and be identified through a notification, that would breach privacy, therefore we are unable to share at a classroom level similar to what we did last year,” Varcoe said in an email. She clarified that Waukee schools were able to release more information last year due to the governor’s emergency order.

The Iowa State Education Association, a teachers’ union, says it believes schools legally can still report COVID-19 cases by classroom “so long as specific personal information is not divulged.”

“The guidance on childhood illness does not preclude sending out information regarding COVID and possible exposure nor does a changed proclamation,” said Jean Hessburg, public relations specialist for ISEA.

Des Moines Public Schools reports elementary school cases by classroom, according to district spokesperson Phil Roeder. Even so, it’s a shift away from more detailed contact tracing last year, when schools would try to identify which students were “close contacts” by using seating charts.

“This year the classroom-wide notification at elementary schools is just as efficient and effective, and because it goes out to a larger number of students avoids any medical privacy concerns,” Roeder said.

Roeder said DMPS chose to do classroom-level notifications because emailing an entire grade would cause “unnecessary confusion and concern for families when we know their children were not exposed.” Secondary school parents at DMPS do not receive classroom-level notifications because students switch rooms for different classes.

Childhood COVID-19 cases increase in Iowa, schools bring back masks

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Iowa, including in children. 

This week, Iowa reported the highest COVID-19 numbers since the beginning of 2021, before the vaccine was widely available. Children have accounted for a significant portion of those new cases: The Des Moines Register reported that over 3,000 kids were reported as COVID-positive in this week’s data update, accounting for more than a quarter of all new cases. Eighteen children are hospitalized with COVID-19.

The ongoing spread of COVID has prompted grassroots data reporting efforts. Iowan Sara Anne Willette has complied school cases online, comparing the positive cases to those last school year. The state does not release a compilation of school COVID-19 data, but several districts have launched their own dashboards.

As the virus continues to spread among Iowans of all ages, several school districts have used a temporary federal court injunction to reinstate mask mandates for students. Most of the districts in the Des Moines metro now require all students and staff to wear a mask.

Lawyers for Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday asked the federal judge to allow the temporary injunction to expire — a decision that would once again prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks.

The issue has been contentious among Iowa parents. The Ankeny school board voted on Tuesday to require masks in schools after a rowdy meeting where attendees shouted over one another and, in one case, threatened school board members.

What do you want to know about COVID-19 in schools? Email reporter Katie Akin at [email protected].

Correction 9/27: This article incorrectly stated Amy Varcoe’s position. She is the spokesperson for the Waukee Community School District.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.