University of Alabama responds to reports of asking professors to ‘keep quiet’ about COVID cases

University of Alabama researchers study how COVID-19 related stress affects decision making
University of Alabama researchers study how COVID-19 related stress affects decision making(WBRC)
Updated: Aug. 30, 2020 at 6:53 PM CDT
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WBRC) - The University of Alabama is responding to reports from other organizations that faculty and staff have been advised to ‘keep quiet’ about COVID-19 cases on campus.

According to reports from The Daily Beast and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, faculty were advised by email in the last week not to discuss the outbreak of cases. As WBRC previously reported, more than 1,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since students returned to campus on August 19.

When asked for comment about these reports on Sunday, an official with the university said the reports are misinformed. We are told the intent was to notify faculty whose responsibility it is to share information about any students who test positive, citing FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That regulation, according to the university, prevents faculty on any campus from publicly identifying an individual’s health issues, including a positive COVID test.

A spokesperson for the university gave the following statement to WBRC on Sunday when asked for comment about the reports:

The University of Alabama is committed to providing students, faculty and staff the resources and information they need in this time of change and challenge. The University must, however, balance this against its commitment to protecting the private health information of our campus community. Procedures have been put in place to strike this balance while complying with federal privacy laws, primarily the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA applies to most public and private postsecondary institutions and to the records on students at campus health clinics. These records are not subject to disclosure except in limited circumstances. Pursuant to FERPA, the University does not release any information that can be used to identify a student or employee.

The University has a robust exposure notification program. UA’s COVID Support Program oversees communications and notification related to potential exposure from positive cases. The role that faculty play in the reporting and notification process is generally summarized in UA’s posted Faculty FAQs on our website. UA has not traced a single COVID infection to a classroom. We remain confident that our distancing and face covering protocols provide a high level of safety in the classroom.

Nevertheless, should UA’s COVID Support Program determine that a student is positive for COVID-19, they will contact the student to give support and instructions. As noted, the University will endeavor to protect the privacy of students and avoid publicly identifying a student who has tested positive. If, however, the COVID Support Program determines that some or all of a class may have been in close contact with the positive individual, the relevant students and faculty members would be notified of the potential exposure and provided with directions on how to respond. In any such notification, the COVID Support Program will not identify the student by name. Likewise, faculty members are asked not to unilaterally identify a student who has tested positive to other students. Instead, for the sake of consistency and to avoid confusion, all communications to potential close contacts are designed to run through the COVID Support Program. Faculty are encouraged to call the COVID Support Program (205-348-CV19) for guidance or clarification as needed.

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