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Billings schools ask court to weigh in on COVID-19 information disclosures

Billings schools ask court to weigh in on COVID-19 information disclosures

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Billings Public Schools has asked a district court to weigh in on its COVID-19 positive case disclosure policy. 

The district currently does not provide any general notification of positive cases in its schools. Rather, only close contacts of someone diagnosed with COVID-19 are notified as part of contact tracing by county health officials.

However, in response to a public records request, district lawyers have asked a local judge to weigh the interests of student and staff privacy vs. the public's right to know. 

The petition comes as groups like the Montana School Boards Association, Department of Education, and Gov. Steve Bullock have said the public should be notified about positive cases linked to schools, so long as a student or staffer isn't identified.

Educational institutions and public health agencies around the state have adopted varying policies about disclosures of positive COVID-19 cases. 

Lawyer Vicki McDonald filed a request with the district on Aug. 27 for the identifications of schools that have recorded a positive COVID-19 case or been exposed to one among students or staff, the identity of the classrooms where the positive or exposure occurred, dates of the positives or exposures, and public records related to positives or exposure. 

A standard practice in freedom of information requests is to make the original request more expansive, asking for more information than less.

McDonald also filed the request with RiverStone Health, which effectively rejected the request in a letter from Yellowstone County Attorney Jeana Lervick, who maintained that Montana law prohibits a public health officer from releasing such information. 

Public health departments in Gallatin and Missoula counties have released information about positive cases linked to universities. 

The Billings school district petition lays out a framework for disclosure. It would identify the number of student positives and the number of staff positives in the K-8 district and high school district on a weekly basis. 

That isn't a current practice, yet. Superintendent Greg Upham said Thursday that there had been no change in district policy. The filing also emphasizes collaborating with county health officials about data reporting. 

The district's filing also raises concerns about releasing information on a school or grade level, and whether it could be used to identify a student with additional sleuthing. 

McDonald also represents local school employee unions; she filed a separate request for information on their behalf that the school included in its petition to the district court. That request should not have been included, McDonald said, as it was submitted in relation to collective bargaining agreements, not public information law, and is governed by different legal rules. 

The petition, filed on Sept. 4, sits before District Court Judge Rod Souza. 

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