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Don’t keep school infection rates secret | COMMENTARY

Head of School Patrick Kiley shows off a fourth grade classroom at St. Martin's Lutheran School of Annapolis which has taken steps, such as spreading desks out six feet in classrooms, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this fall. File.
Head of School Patrick Kiley shows off a fourth grade classroom at St. Martin's Lutheran School of Annapolis which has taken steps, such as spreading desks out six feet in classrooms, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this fall. File. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

People are asked to make responsible decisions about their personal safety all the time. This is particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic when infection rates vary not only state to state but county by county and even city by city. That’s a major reason why those numbers are published for everyone to see weekly and, in some cases, daily. So we can make informed decisions. Is it safe to travel to this place? Would my elderly relative be OK in this nursing home? Are the infection rates moving in a good or bad direction right now? The key to answering these reasonable concerns is to have access to the data.

And so here’s the question that is soon going to be on the mind of most every parent or guardian or teacher or school employee in Maryland as more systems return to in-person instruction in the weeks ahead: How safe is it at any particular school? The good news is that the Maryland Department of Health will absolutely know the answer to that question as school administrators will be required to report confirmed cases to local health departments. The bad is that it’s not yet clear how much of that information will be made available to the public.

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There should be no hesitation. Transparency is best. We understand concerns about privacy of individual students. That’s a legitimate issue but rather easily overcome. The public should not be given names or identifying details about youngsters or school employees who have tested positive. But haunting the ongoing talks between local health departments and school systems appears to be a concern about the general public overreacting to the information. Might families be tempted to cut and run with the first diagnosis at their local elementary school? Might private schools be literally forced out of business? Might teachers refuse to enter buildings once the number of positive tests reached a certain level?

No one can guarantee that people won’t overreact to news of positive test results, that’s true, but the implication is that withholding information will somehow cause stakeholders to be comforted, reasonable and rational. That’s a misread of basic human nature. The absence of reliable information doesn’t cause people to be more relaxed, it puts them on edge: What is my government not telling me? And in that kind of environment, one could easily see all those bad behaviors happen but on the basis of rumors, not facts. Better to share everything possible as soon as possible, build trust and give the best medical advice in the process. People are capable of rising to the occasion but not if they’re never given that opportunity.

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Isn’t this exactly the same dilemma the state faced months ago with nursing home data? Early in the pandemic, it was the Maryland Department of Health’s position that positive tests were something for individual nursing homes to release to the public if they chose. That set off a firestorm of protest from individuals who rightly recognized that people had a right to know whether a loved one was at risk and the broader community to know if their local nursing home was a super-spreading center. The Hogan administration eventually relented and reversed course.

Schools aren’t nursing homes, of course. Children are far less vulnerable to the virus than the elderly (although not invulnerable). But their families are surely at risk. So is the surrounding community: How many kids come home to a household with an elderly relative or someone with a compromised immune system? How about those living next door? Marylanders ought to be able to judge what’s going on, particularly given the growing likelihood that the United States faces a so-called “second wave” of the pandemic as temperatures drop and activities move indoors.

The State House has never had a perfect playbook for once-in-a-century pandemics, so it’s understandable that the issue of privacy versus transparency needs to be hashed out. There wasn’t a game plan for shutting down businesses or ordering people to wear masks and keep social distance either. We are all stumbling along through 2020 and doing the best we can in these uncertain times. But how can anyone be confident that we’re making the right decision if we can’t be trusted with a truthful and more complete picture of exactly what’s going on? Medical privacy is one thing, deliberately keeping people in the dark about what’s happening in individual schools, public or private, is another. Gov. Larry Hogan should put his foot down on this one and opt for transparency. Releasing school data is the educated thing to do.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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