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LESSONS LEARNED | What schools can and can't tell parents about COVID-19 cases on campus

East Texas schools are reporting positive coronavirus cases causing some campuses to shut down temporarily. The TEA has released guidance for what schools must do.

TYLER, Texas — Starting in September, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) will start reporting COVID-19 cases in schools across Texas.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) will be supporting the DSHS in collecting this information.

RELATED: Texas school districts to start reporting COVID-19 cases to the state Friday

RELATED: TEA, DSHS to create COVID-19 data tracking system for Texas public schools

In East Texas, there have already been coronavirus cases surfacing at schools across the area — some have even caused districts to temporarily shut down specific campuses.

But what steps are schools required to take when a COVID-19 case is confirmed? What can and can't they tell parents?

To answer that question, the TEA released some pretty detailed guidance to with the caveat as the public health situation changes — so could their recommendations.

East Texas schools are also working with their local health authorities and will still submit reports to them when a teacher, student or staff member tests positive.

"We have to learn how to live with the virus," George Roberts, Northeast Texas Public Health District (NET Health) CEO, said. "The virus is very infectious, but we are not powerless against the virus. There are things we can do."

It's up to all of us — students, teachers, staff and families — to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus in our schools. The TEA says school systems must first require teachers and staff to self-screen for symptoms and parents should do the same for their children. They say never send a children to school when they're sick. 

Roberts says we owe it to each other to stay home when we are sick. 

"Whether we have COVID-19 or a sore throat or whatever I have — I owe it to my fellow person not to infect somebody else," Roberts said.

However, what if someone comes to school and later is suspected of having the coronavirus? The TEA says schools must immediately separate anyone who shows COVID-19 symptoms until they can be picked up. Schools should also clean the area as soon as possible.

"You know, when we talked to the schools, we encouraged them to not only disinfect the space, but they're in there fairly frequently, disinfecting the restrooms and also those teacher restrooms because really, quite frankly the people on our campuses right now who are at the most risk right now aren't necessarily our students, it's the teachers," Roberts said.

If someone at school tests positive for COVID-19, what's next?

According to the TEA, they're required to notify NET Health or whichever local health district the school falls under. Schools must close off areas that were heavily used by the infected individual until they can properly clean.

Schools must also notify all teachers, staff and families if there's a lab confirmed case on campus, consistent with the school notification requirements and legal confidentiality requirements.

At CBS19, one thing we hear a lot from East Texans — why can't we know who is sick? 

"It's about guarding people's privacy," Roberts said. "So, the schools are typically reporting. They're telling us if they have positive cases, they will typically give us a name, but we don't have the right to publicize that name."

HIPAA is the medical privacy law. 

What the health department is interested in, is helping schools contact trace. 

"The whole goal here is we want schools to be able to be back in session," Roberts said. "People to go about their lives, but when cases come up, we want to be able to go back and track the source because we want the source to self isolate properly, so that if people have been exposed, we want those people to self-isolate as well for 14 days so they won't spread the virus as well."

Schools must also report confirmed cases weekly to the DSHS beginning Sept. 8.

So, after you get COVID-19, when can you return to campus?

You must meet three criteria:

  • At least one day (24 hours) has passed since recovery (resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications);
  • The individual has improvement in symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath);
  • At least ten days have passed since symptoms first appeared.

If you have symptoms, but didn't get tested, you must follow the same protocol.

Schools are working to socially distance students and make sure everyone is wearing a mask, but students are still in rooms together and at lunch.

So, what if you came in close contact with someone with COVID-19?

In that case, Roberts says you should stay home.

"The classic definition of close contacts is — who has been in contact within six feet for 15 minutes or longer," Roberts said. "The schools are looking, too, if they had masking on. Who had received that close exposure so that then those people would be asked to stay home for 14 days. The guidance there is because it usually takes you two to 14 days to develop symptoms." 

NET Health says they'll be keeping track of cases in East Texas schools to report them, and will continue offering support until there's a vaccine.

"They've all been very open with us. It's a challenging time for the schools to open up right now," Roberts said. "It's challenging enough, you know as a mom, getting kids back to school, it's challenging enough to start the school year — plus on top of that have a pandemic going on."

For more information on the TEA's latest guidance, click here.