Some public school districts and public health officials in Montana say medical privacy laws are preventing them from working together when a positive COVID-19 case is found in a school. On Thursday, Gov. Steve Bullock’s office released new guidance on the issue.
The document allows school districts to turn over the information needed for officials to trace the contacts of confirmed cases, according to Montana Association of School Nurses President Erica Harp. She said the guidance, which includes protocols for when a symptomatic student should be sent home and when they could return to class, will be especially helpful for schools without a nurse on staff.
“Knowing how many questions I get on a daily basis about, 'Is this person in quarantine?' or 'Does this person need to go home?' I think for the schools that are navigating that without a medical person on staff, it's very challenging,” Harp said.
Montana’s county health officials are taking varied approaches to the disclosure of COVID-positive students' and staff members' information to school districts.
Some health departments are providing information to school nurses, who, in turn, give the general information to school administrators. Other departments say they cannot share any information with school districts.
Information sharing can take place, Gov. Bullock said, under what is known as the government's Health Care Information Act.
"School nurses or designated public health representatives can receive information about positive cases, as well as the principal, to take steps to prevent the spread of transmission in the school setting," he said.
Bullock added that state health officials are still working out how case-related information and school outbreaks can be disclosed to parents with children that are not close contacts, as well as the broader public.