State complaint filed against school system over COVID-19 data request

CLARKE COUNTY, Ga. — A complaint has been filed with the state over a school system’s  response to a parent seeking more specific  COVID case data.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation has filed the complaint with the state attorney general’s office on behalf of Carrie Bishop, a mother to an elementary school student in Clarke County Schools.

Earlier this week, Carrie Bishop filed an Open Records Request seeking a school-by-school breakdown of COVID cases, since the data offered on the school website offered an overall picture of cases across the district.

In response, and citing HIPAA concerns, the school system initially denied the request, according to the complaint, which referenced an e-mail chain. Bishop clarified with the system that she wasn’t seeking identifying information, telling Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr that she was simply seeking context to the data.

Several school systems across the state, including Clarke, issue Department of Public Health ‘close contact letters,’ notifying parents and staff of case exposure in their particular schools, telling them if it’s been determined that  a child or staff member has been  directly exposed, they’ll also be directly contacted. But the system doesn’t publish case breakdowns by schools.

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“That is rubbish,” said Richard T. Griffiths, spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “The fact is HIPAA does not preclude anonymized data from being provided to the public.”

“They’re not saying Nicole Carr has COVID,” he continued.” They’re not saying Richard Griffiths has COVID. They’re saying there were two cases in the school, or they should be saying that.”

Instead, the system went on to explain that they  were not required by the state to provide the school-by-school breakdown of weekly case count in an ORR, unless there were ten or more cases. The reasoning, the system explained, was tied to the idea that providing more granular data may make it easier for others to determine the identity of sick individuals.

Bishop asked for the available data, as well as a link to the  state board of education policy behind the decision.

The complaint details a “reply all” message sent by the school system’s outside counsel, in which the attorney wrote:

“Let’s send her the guidance in three days and move on, the attorney wrote.” I’d recommend not responding to this email right now.”

On Thursday, the GA FAF filed a complaint on Bishop’s behalf on the grounds of intentional records delay, and withholding information that, based on federal law, should be available to parents.

By Friday morning, the district provided that school-by-school breakdown to Bishop , with the caveat of identifying schools based on fewer than ten weekly cases.

“Imagine Atlanta police saying we’re only going to tell you the number of accidents on the Downtown Connector  when they exceed ten in one hour,” Griffiths said.

“School systems, public officials can’t decide what the public thinks is important information,” he continued. “It’s the public’s right to have the information that they think is important.”

A spokesman for Clarke County Schools told Carr on Friday that a human resources investigator had confirmed it a proper records fulfillment.

“She (the investigator) confirmed that our Board attorney has consulted with the State’s Attorney General’s Office, which confirmed that the school district should not identify student populations 10 and below,” wrote Beth Moore, CCSD spokeswoman. “Doing so could potentially provide personally identifiable information.”

The state attorney general’s office confirmed its current review of the complaint.