Phil Drake Great Falls Tribune
Published 7:42 PM EDT Sep 16, 2020
Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday that the state will start posting a weekly tally of positive COVID-19 cases in public and private schools and universities, in an effort to provide more information.
“It’s critically important that we are transparent for teachers, staff and parents, while at the same time following privacy requirements,” he said.
But the announcement also pitted the governor into another battle with the state superintendent of public instruction, who said the postings could be an invasion of privacy in smaller school districts.
Bullock, a Democrat, said it will provide a basic level of information while providing the transparency and trust that parents and community need.
For schools over 50 students, the number of students and staff testing positive will be posted along with the name of the school and county it is in. For schools with 11-50 students, it won’t distinguish between students and staff and in schools with less than 10 students or less there will be no reporting to ensure individual privacy.
He said the information will be updated Wednesdays, but could be more frequent if there is a major event.
Bullock said the information will be posted on the demographics page of the Department of Public Health and Human Services website. He said people can access the page through the state website covid19.mt.gov.
Bullock said 60 schools in Montana have seen at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 in a student or staff member since the beginning of the school year. He said 51 K-12 students have been diagnosed with the virus in the few weeks since the semester started — out of 147,000 students in the state.
The Great Falls Public Schools district said Monday that it had 14 active cases of COVID-19 among students and staff across the district.
The governor’s announcement brought a swift rebuke from state school Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, saying it could reveal information in smaller school districts and asked to only post information from a county level.
“As state superintendent, it is my job to protect the data privacy of Montana students, families, and school staff,” Arntzen, a Republican, said in an email. “I would expect the governor and state health officials to also ensure that the medical data privacy of children and school staff are protected.”
She said many of Montana’s rural schools have few students and staff and displaying data for these individual schools will increase the risk of “exposing personally identifiable medical information.”
“I again ask the governor to reverse this decision and display aggregate data only at the county level,” Arntzen said.
Bullock responded to Arntzen in a letter Wednesday in which he expressed shock.
“I am surprised by your position that we should not provide parents with transparency about critical public health information that could impact their children,” he wrote.
“If parents are left wondering whether there are positive cases associated with the school they entrust their children with each day, or if they don’t have a reliable source to determine in which school in a county those positive cases might be, that confidence and trust will be undermined,” he wrote.
He said the state will not display health data about individual children or staff.
“It simply provides parents, teachers, and the interested public with general information if there are positive cases associated with a school,” he wrote.
He said they have met with her senior staff, who said the decisions were outside of the department’s realm.
“While we will continue to engage your office on these issues, I will always rely on those on the front lines serving students — our superintendents, principals, teachers and parents — when it comes to these decisions,” he wrote.
Bullock and Arntzen, who is running for reelection, have had several public disputes during the pandemic. In August, she criticized the governor on a face mask mandate for schools.
She has complained about a lack of communication between her office and the governor’s staff. Bullock denied the claim, saying she has had the opportunity to meet with his staff nearly every week of the pandemic.
Montana added 190 cases of COVID-19 early Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 9,431 confirmations of the respiratory illness, with Cascade County adding another 18 reports.
Of the 9,431, 7,186 are recovered, 2,104 are active, the state said at its covid19.mt.gov website.
There are 141 deaths, which is one more than reported Tuesday.
The newest death occurred in Gallatin County, state officials said.
The state has 106 people hospitalized out of 543 total hospitalizations. There have been 292,401 tests administered, which is 2,035 more than Tuesday.
Cascade County now has 223 active cases, 253 recoveries and five deaths.
In northcentral and northeastern Montana, Dawson County added five reports on Wednesday, Chouteau added three, Hill County had two new cases and Glacier County added one.
Elsewhere in the state, Yellowstone County had 82 new reports, Rosebud had 39, Big Horn had eight, Gallatin had six, Custer, Lewis and Clark and Missoula had four.
Deer Lodge, Jefferson, Richland and Silver Bow each had one.
This story contains information from the Associated Press. Reporter Phil Drake is our eye on the state capitol. For tips, suggestions or comment, he can be reached at 406-231-9021 or [email protected] To support his work, subscribe today and get a special offer.
More: Great Falls Public Schools announces 14 active COVID-19 cases across the district
Published 7:42 PM EDT Sep 16, 2020