There is no legal requirement to notify a teacher (employee) of a student’s specific identity or other staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19. However, administrators need to identify those individuals who meet the criteria of a close contact so they can seek out testing and need to self-quarantine. Please see below for the current guidance as of this posting, and note that the definition has changed as science and research evolved.
The employer should not notify employees of a person’s identity by name if it can be helped. For example, a small, in-person meeting involved adults sitting less than six feet apart for more than 15 minutes, and one of those individuals tested positive. If the principal has a list of individuals at the meeting, you would be told that they have identified you as being someone who was in close contact (meeting the standard) because you were at the meeting and you should get tested. They would not have to tell you the person’s name.
This is where what a teacher tells the administration about their classroom setup and interaction becomes important. If you are a teacher who stays ONLY at the front of the room and six feet away from all students, you may not need to be defined as a close contact. However, if your students regularly leave their seats and interact with each other and you at less than six feet, or perhaps you walk the classroom to check how they are doing, it is likely that you are within six feet of a student for more than 15 minutes. Even with those conditions, you would likely not be told the name of a student, only that there is a student in your room who tested positive.
If you know a student in your room has tested positive and a student is out sick, you will likely figure it out anyway. You can also ask point-blank if your classroom was affected.
The HIPAA rules require that personal health information is kept as confidential as possible. Generally, this is applicable to health entities like hospitals, but there is overlap with employers, for example, if your doctor provides a note related to your health condition that has to be kept confidential.
U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements also come into play. They require employers as well schools to keep confidential personal medical and or other disability-related conditions. Current federal guidance says if there are positive cases identified in the workplace, the employer is supposed to investigate to determine possible exposure of others. Such an investigation is usually conducted by interviewing the positive person and or retracing the places they were at work/campus. However, guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) also expect that the person’s identifiable information remains as much as possible protected and not disclosed. The only disclosure that is explicitly required and not prohibited is to state, local, and federal health authorities.
The current guidelines for close contacts and notification, which have evolved over time, must be followed. For example, at one time, the guidelines defined anyone who was in a classroom for 15 minutes or more to be defined as close contact. As science and research evolved, that guidance changed. The current guidance (linked here) includes the following:
Conditions for reporting possible exposure and close contact situations:
- The infectious period begins two days prior to the onset of symptoms, or if the individual is not exhibiting any symptoms, two days prior to the positive COVID-19 test specimen collection date.
- A close contact at school is someone who was exposed to the individual who tested positive with COVID-19 during their infectious period:
- Within 6 feet of an infected person over a 24-hour period for a combined total of 15 minutes or more.
- In direct contact with secretions (e.g. being coughed on).
- The determination of close contact should be made irrespective of persons wearing face covering/masks
- If a school can clearly identify which persons meet those criteria, all persons in the class may not be identified as close contacts. Instances where all persons in the class would be considered close contacts includes:
- Cohorts in classrooms that spend the entire day together and interact with others within the cohort (typically younger grade levels);
- Classrooms that do not have assigned seats and/or students are frequently moving around in class;
- Cohorts that engage in activities that may increase the risk of transmission (e.g., eating/drinking, singing, using musical instruments that require blowing).
Instances where all persons in the class may not be considered close contacts include:
- Classrooms with assigned seating and students remain seated throughout class.
— March 31, 2021