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Citing privacy concerns, Cayuga County limits school COVID-19 case info

First Day of School 9.JPG

Teaching assistant Sandy Dec takes temperatures before the start of classes on the first day of school at Herman Avenue School in Auburn on Sept. 7.

When Joe Sadusky became aware on Sept. 15 that one of his children's Owasco Elementary School teachers tested positive for COVID-19, he emailed school personnel right away and called the next day to ask why the district didn't inform parents about the positive case.

The district told him the "exposure wasn't enough to notify parents or quarantine the classroom," an explanation that left him concerned about how communication is being handled this school year regarding COVID-19 cases.

The reason for the limited communication is privacy, an issue that school district's and county health officials are grappling with as the attempt to balance transparency with protecting individual's private health information.

Sadusky, who said his daughter has since tested negative for COVID-19, has had several conversations with Auburn Enlarged City School District Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo, who Sakusky praised as being concerned for children's health and safety and is "doing a tremendous job in everything he can."

Sadusky said Pirozzolo told him that the district has been advised by the county health department that it legally can't tell families that someone in a classroom with their child tested positive, because that could potentially allow people to figure out who had tested positive. Sadusky argued that since Auburn is a "small town," people will eventually find out who the positive person is regardless, especially if a parent's child mentions that a teacher or child hasn't been in class for a few days.

Sadusky hopes that the district in the future could at least put out "a blanket statement" to families that their child was in proximity to someone who tested positive, that they can't release their name due to confidentiality, and that it didn't deem it necessary to quarantine their child but recommend that parents monitor their child for COVID-19 symptoms. 

On Tuesday, Sadusky added that both Pirozzolo and Cayuga County Public Health Director Kathleen Cuddy have been in contact with him and said they will continue to find ways to improve existing communication protocols. He also praised Pirozzolo and Cuddy for dealing with the restrictions they have to work within, acknowledging that the county health department has state and federal guidelines it must follow.

Speaking with The Citizen, Pirozzolo said quarantine rules have changed since last year. At the beginning of last year, when a child tested positive, everyone in that classroom would need to quarantine, but as the school year went on, the guidance changed to those within 6 feet of the positive person in a cumulative 15-minute period having to quarantine. He added that for children this year, they would need to quarantine if they were within 3 feet of someone who tested positive. Pirozzolo also said it was determined that the teacher in question wasn't within 6 feet of her students.

In a communication to district parents sent around 5 p.m. Friday, Pirozzolo listed how many students and staff members were quarantined in each school building. He also noted that families have been reaching out to him and school principals about why they weren't told about a positive case in their child's classroom. The county health department has told the district how to handle notifications, Pirozzolo said, adding that the only parents and guardians the district are currently allowed to notify "are those whose children are deemed a contact and need to quarantine."

Pirozzolo said the district received the following information when the it reached out to the health department about those concerns:

“Due to the very small (statistically speaking) number of people that occupy any given classroom, to notify people that are not directly impacted by the exposure (in other words the people identified for quarantine based upon current CDC guidelines) would not provide a sufficient buffer from identifying the positive person. It could, in essence, identify a person’s private health status. For example, 18 students and 1 teacher; if suddenly there’s a substitute teacher for 5 days or 5 students absent for 5 days narrows the likely identity of the positive person," the health department said, according to the Auburn district in the news release.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education and City Reporter

Hello, my name is Kelly Rocheleau, and I cover the education and city beats for The Citizen and I've been writing for the paper since December 2016.

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