Students and staff at the University of Alabama were horrified to learn last week that the school was telling professors to keep quiet about anyone infected with COVID-19 in their class. But it turns out that UA isn’t the only school not letting people know they may have been in the same room with someone who has the virus.
A recent announcement from Boston University, which plans to resume classes both in person and online Sept. 2, declared that “the health of our community—faculty, staff, and students—is best served by ensuring the strict privacy of everyone’s test status.”
To that end, the announcement states, faculty will not be notified if a student in their class tests positive, unless they are determined to have been in “close contact.” (The university did not respond to a request for comment asking for the definition of “close contact.”)
“While I understand the desire to seek out this information about your students, an effective contact tracing process requires a level of trust that we feel cannot be maintained if students know their testing status will be revealed to faculty or staff,” reads the announcement from University Provost Jean Morrison.
But some university employees say the policy makes them feel less safe on campus, not more.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why they want to be so open about how much COVID testing there is… but at the same time they don’t want to tell us if somebody that we’re teaching has tested positive,” said one graduate student researcher who asked to remain anonymous.
She added: “They’re trying to advertise how well they’re doing testing and all that, but if we’re not being made aware of it, how do we know how well this is working?”
At the University of Alabama, where more than 1,200 staff and students have tested positive, professors are not routinely notified if a student in their class tests positive, and have been repeatedly warned not to tell students in their class about an infected classmate, either.
A previous version of UA’s policy cited HIPAA, a federal health privacy rule, as the reason that such information could not be shared. After The Daily Beast reported on it, the policy was changed to cite FERPA, a federal law protecting the privacy of student education records.
But privacy experts say that neither law prevents schools from disclosing relevant public health information in the middle of a pandemic. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education eased its FERPA restrictions in March due to the coronavirus, making it much less likely that schools would be penalized for such disclosures.
Especially at large universities where professors teach dozens of students a day, there is no privacy risk in telling them that an unidentified student tested positive, said Amelia Vance, the director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum.
“That’s really where I think it is completely legitimate to criticize schools for not releasing information that is 100 percent in the public interest, and is likely not being disclosed only to protect the schools reputation,” she said.
LeRoy Rooker, who directed the DOE’s Family Policy Compliance Office for 21 years, said that notifying a professor of an infected student would easily fall under the health and safety emergency exception to FERPA, though some states may have more stringent student privacy laws. (BU did not respond to questions about what specific state laws, if any, they were citing to defend their policy.)
And Sean Elliott, a chemistry professor and director of graduate studies at BU, pointed out that everyone—not just students—had to put some of their privacy on the line during the pandemic.
Elliott elected to teach remotely this semester, and said that because of that, his students are “smart enough to realize that I must have a high-risk condition.”
“Even though I would like to protect my privacy, it's not really an option, is it?” he said in an email. “And if I can take that hit now, in advance, I would like to think that the BU community could share our public health status for the greater good.”