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What Can Be Told

As colleges and universities reopen in the US, the Chronicle of Higher Education asks experts what sort of data institutions may release about any ensuing COVID-19 outbreaks.

It notes that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — which moved to all online classes after hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and students — told the Daily Tar Heel earlier this month that it would not be releasing the number of cases in COVID-19 clusters because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Additionally, it adds schools have previously cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in their reluctance to release information on, for instance, student-athletes' injuries.

The Chronicle, though, asks LeRoy Rooker from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and Steven McDonald, the general counsel at the Rhode Island School of Design, what sort of data colleges and universities may provide under these privacy restraints. Both experts say schools should not release students' names publicly, but may provide generic data on case numbers, if the data provided cannot be used to identify a student. 

Schools may also inform professors or other instructors whether someone in their class has tested positive because of an exception to FERPA that allows for disclosure to school officials who have a legitimate educational interest in a student's records, which Rooker tells the Chronicle would be the case in that scenario. The experts both note that state laws vary and are often more restrictive than the federal ones, it adds.