Colleges Weigh Transparency Versus Privacy When It Comes to Covid-19 Data

Tug of war between providing information and protecting identities creates a patchwork of reporting that some students say puts their health at risk

North Carolina State University students on campus last week. The school has now moved undergraduate classes online because of Covid-19.

Photo: Robert Willett/Associated Press

香蕉视频苹果下载When the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sent students text alerts this month of four Covid-19 clusters, Annie Ferry had a simple question that hinted at a privacy debate looming over campuses around the country.

“What is a cluster?” the UNC junior asked.

香蕉视频苹果下载Ms. Ferry expected groups of five or more cases in close proximity, per the state’s definition of “cluster,” as students started coming back in early August for some in-person classes. But UNC didn’t specify the number of positive tests in each alert out of privacy concerns, leaving students like Ms. Ferry speculating that one cluster at a frat house could include dozens.

“I’m scared because I don’t like the way that information is being communicated right now,” Ms. Ferry said.

The issue of how to report outbreaks exploded at UNC last week, with the four clusters contributing to 130 student Covid-19 cases in its then-weekly update of test results. The total spurred pushback from students and led the administration to shutter dorms, move all undergraduate classes online, and expand its data-sharing policies to daily reports and cluster-specific case counts.

Other schools trying to open campuses are also grappling with how to collect and share data about the virus, raising questions among some students and faculty of where legal compliance ends and public relations begins.

香蕉视频苹果下载“Covid-19 didn’t create problems of transparency for universities,” said Donald Taylor Jr., a health policy professor at Duke University, which is also in North Carolina. “It just made them more public.”

School officials trying to start in-person instruction have ramped up testing and in some cases bolstered campus surveillance, including apps to track symptoms and cameras to help monitor social-distancing.

香蕉视频苹果下载Universities that receive federal funding are required to disclose immediate threats to campus safety under the Clery Act, a consumer protection law. But many administrators say they can share only slices of Covid-19 statistics due to statutes that protect personal health data and student records: the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The U.S. Education Department in March put out Covid-19 for FERPA, saying schools can share students’ personally identifiable information with “appropriate parties” under an exception for emergencies. The department, which defines emergencies as natural disasters, shootings, terrorist attacks and epidemics, urged administrators to evaluate Covid-19 reporting on a case-by-case basis.

香蕉视频苹果下载The law gives universities wide latitude for interpretation, said Kathleen Dion, chair of the education practice at the law firm Robinson & Cole LLP. Schools disagree on what information is identifiable and who are appropriate parties, and some appear to be changing their interpretations of the law as coronavirus cases spread.

香蕉视频苹果下载“The policy that schools have really needs to take into account that there are individual facts and circumstances to each report of a Covid-19 outbreak,” she said, pointing to the student population and relationships with local health departments.

The legal wiggle room, coupled with varying appetites for transparency, is contributing to a patchwork of reporting standards among universities trying to return.

The University of Notre Dame, which temporarily suspended in-person classes after a flare-up last week, reports test totals and confirmed cases on a daily dashboard. Duke University last week unveiled a dashboard that includes the number of people in quarantine and released from quarantine, in addition to total tests and cases. But Duke updates the data set weekly.

香蕉视频苹果下载At the University of Texas at Austin, which reports daily confirmed cases and provides a weekly breakdown of positive and negative test results, officials said they are now deliberating if and when to report clusters as students return. Officials at UT and other schools say they are weighing how granular they can be with data, such as sharing case counts in specific dorms or sororities, while complying with privacy laws.

Chris Suggs, senior class president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wants school administrators to provide more data about Covid-19, including demographic breakdowns of test results.

Photo: PHOTO: KRISTAL SUGGS

Those trade-offs could be more painful for students from marginalized groups, such as Native Americans, said Holly Jensen, vice president of communications at the University of Arizona. Officials at the school, which began some in-person classes Monday, haven’t decided whether to report such location-specific data in a forthcoming daily dashboard, Ms. Jensen said.

香蕉视频苹果下载“If you identify a cluster, are you setting up those students for racial violence or hate?” Ms. Jensen asked.

North Carolina State University expanded its public-facing dashboard last week to include self-reported test results from off-campus clinics and the number of people in isolation. But the shifting data sets make some day-to-day comparisons difficult for students, faculty and staff, said Grace Ullman, a third-year Ph.D. student and teaching assistant.

香蕉视频苹果下载“All the time, their reporting is changing,” said Ms. Ullman, president of the university’s Graduate Workers Union.

Will the coronavirus pandemic lead to long-term changes in higher education? To better understand the challenges facing U.S. colleges and universities, WSJ’s Alexander Hotz spoke with administrators, students, and a higher education futurist. Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

The Raleigh, N.C.-based university emailed the campus community about several outbreaks at Greek housing over the past week. Some students on Reddit also shared unconfirmed reports of additional clusters in dorms in lieu of more official information.

香蕉视频苹果下载NC State, which moved all undergraduate courses online starting Monday, is sharing case counts in clusters on a case-by-case basis out of FERPA concerns, a university spokesman said.

After campus pushback in nearby Chapel Hill last week, UNC officials decided that reporting daily test data and case counts within clusters at residence halls is crucial, a spokesperson said.

The administration previously told The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper that it wasn’t reporting case counts within clusters to comply with FERPA. But the spokesperson didn’t respond to questions of if and how the school’s understanding of the law changed over the past week.

Some student activists like Chris Suggs want UNC to provide even more data about Covid-19, including demographic breakdowns of test results, to empower public health experts to study how the pandemic affects different communities.

“We’re one of the top research institutions in the country,” said Mr. Suggs, UNC’s senior class president. “What do we do to come up with best practices?”

Ms. Ferry, who is planning to remain on campus despite the dorm closure after receiving an accommodation, said the confusion at UNC is in some ways unavoidable given the scope of the crisis, but officials should still share more information.

香蕉视频苹果下载“This is such a new situation,” Ms. Ferry said, “that all those rules that we normally apply to student safety and student privacy are so detrimental to the rest of us.”

Write to David Uberti at david.uberti@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
香蕉视频苹果下载 The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has moved all undergraduate classes online. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it moved all classes online. (Corrected on Aug. 25)

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