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Principal Daniel Fischer greets students as they arrive off the bus for the first day of school on Thursday, August 27, at Discovery Elementary School in Sioux Falls. (Photo: Erin Bormett / Argus Leader)

South Dakota school districts are starting to open up about the number of active COVID-19 cases they’re seeing, but Sioux Falls is keeping a tight lid on any specifics.

Rapid City Area Schools, the state’s second largest district, announced an online dashboard Wednesday to show its overall number of cases and recoveries within the district, giving the community a look at how many staff and students were infected or in quarantine.

All six of the state’s public universities and a handful of smaller districts, including Pierre and Brookings, are following a similar philosophy by posting their numbers publicly, especially as multiple school districts have had to either temporarily close campuses or move to online learning because of staff shortages or case surges within the last week.

More: Coronavirus: Pierre closes high school, suspends activities due to ‘massive spike’

“SFSD is not altering its decision,” Sioux Falls spokesperson DeeAnn Konrad said Thursday via email.  

The rejection from the state’s largest district follows an open records request for a by-campus breakdown of COVID-19 cases between students and staff.

The district stated the information would “allow a reasonable person in the school community to identify a student or staff member with reasonable certainty.”

The district then cited blanketing laws.

  • State law that says personal information in records regarding any student, prospective student, or former student of any educational institution as specified under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and what’s considered “an unreasonable release of personal information.”
  • And FERPA itself, but the district did not cite a specific exemption. But FERPA only protects education records that must directly relate to an identifiable student.

The state education department has also said this information is releasable to the public.

The Argus Leader asked what flexibility the district could give there was a set threshold that excluded the overall number of it was significantly low in schools with sufficiently low populations, similar to how districts and the state already report things like special education data.

The district did not respond.

More: Coronavirus: Three South Dakota school districts move to distance learning

The Argus Leader asked for an interview with the district’s attorney to better understand the district’s interpretation the laws, but was denied the interview and referred again to the response given for the records request. 

The rejection also comes after the Argus Leader learned the district only sends out one vague general notification letter a day to families to watch for signs and symptoms stating a member of a certain school community as been diagnosed, regardless of how many new cases school officials may learn about. It does not always identify whether the person is an employee or student.

“There is the risk of over-notifying to the point that recipients ignore the message.” Konrad stated.

More: Sioux Falls Superintendent: 1 class is moving to remote learning; COVID cases ‘very low’

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Lisa Frock hugs her first-grader, Theodore, before sending him in for the first day of school on Thursday, August 27, at Discovery Elementary School in Sioux Falls. Visitor restrictions due to the pandemic meant that parents had to say their goodbyes on the playground instead of walking their child into the building. (Photo: Erin Bormett / Argus Leader)

If a larger issue occurred, parents would be notified because the classroom or the school would move to one of the district’s alternate delivery models, Konrad said. 

“Our ability and commitment to communicate potential changes directly with parents has a proven track record,” she stated. “Parents have been great partners to help us keep our schools running with the regular schedule.”

Asked if the district would ever consider sending out a daily update to parents only of overall cases, Konrad again referred to the district’s records response.

“Per CDC and Department of Health guidelines and the district’s Return to Learn Plan, positive cases and those identified for quarantine must fulfill the exclusion periods,” Konrad said.  “Though frustrating for people who feel fine and do not have symptoms, these efforts reduce the risk (of a larger exposure event).”

Yet, the district is seeing an early theme of exposures occurring on weekends during non-school times and outside events, Konrad said. Superintendent Jane Stavem said this week the number of those in quarantine was “a little higher” than the number of positive cases, but that actual cases were “very low,” but did not offer numbers.

More: State officials won’t say which schools have coronavirus cases

The district’s stance is similar to that of the state health department. 

The Argus Leader recently asked the department for similar records, including heat maps of COVID cases sent by the department to superintendents daily, and was denied for similar reasons.

Instead, the state health department only releases statewide data on school-related cases weekly and won’t alert the public of where cases are in districts unless a larger exposure event occurs. So, the Argus Leader has decided kept a rolling tally of cases across South Dakota instead to better show when and how education decisions related to the pandemic are decided.

That list is regularly updated following school notification letters sent in by parents that the Argus Leader has obtained, interviews with school officials or district public notices.

More: Here are the schools and universities with confirmed coronavirus cases

Konrad alleged in an email Friday, though, the Argus Leader was keeping a “messy and inaccurate count,” calling the tally unethical in approach.

Asked for clarity behind the district’s decision to not release the information when other South Dakota education entities have, Konrad said she “cannot speak to how other school districts interpret privacy laws.”

The district serves more than 25,000 pre-k through 12th grade students.

The Argus Leader filed another open records request Thursday with the state health department asking for a by-district breakdown of COVID-19 cases. The state health department declined the request Monday, stating breaking the data down would be considered an “unreasonable release of personal information” and that records of COVID-19 cases themselves are “strictly confidential medical information,” under state law.

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