Emails obtained in an Open Records request connected to a contact tracing in USD 416 Louisburg reflect a different story than was told at the April 12 board meeting.  A parent was disturbed that her daughter’s photo was being taken at an athletic practice for contact tracing purposes, according to the school principal.  Superintendent Brian Biermann insisted that the district had never done contact tracing, but the emails show the staff certainly thinks that that is what they have been doing throughout the school year.

One staff member says, “All year long, coaches were told that we had to identify people that were practicing together, sitting on the bus together, lifting together, cohort groups, class rosters, and seating charts.  These efforts were based on contact tracing purposes.”

Another one says, “I don’t know all the specifics that go into the investigations and phone calls between (Miami County Health Department) and us but why are we doing most of the leg work instead of them?”

The Health Department told the Sentinel that they did not recommend schools take photos of students for tracking purposes.  But one staff member writes, “I am also concerned about how MCHD threw us under the bus in the article.”  There was only one reference to an MCHD statement in the Sentinel article, so the staff statement raises transparency questions with MCHD.

KASB says districts must do contact tracing

A March 16 email from a board member to a parent indicates why the district was engaged in contact tracing.

“I just spoke with (Kansas Association of School Boards).  I explained in detail what was happening.  She said that districts are required to participate in contact tracing to aid the county (Health Department).”

If KASB believes districts are required to participate in contact tracing, why would the superintendent insist the district doesn’t do contact tracing?  If Biermann is trying to distinguish between ‘contact tracing’ and ‘participating in contact tracing,’ that is a distinction without a difference.

Closing ranks against parents and ‘rogue’ board members

One staff member warned colleagues to “be careful what you say and to whom you say it.”  The individual alleged that one parent is “part of an organized group that has a bigger agenda.  They’re connected, they’re (sic) being coached what to do/say.”

That same individual expressed frustration with the district administration for not being transparent and communicating with the public.

“…it is imperative that the facts are sent to the public ASAP!  If nothing is done, accusations run rampant.  I had someone even ask me last night, ‘why hasn’t the district said something?’ I said, ‘It’s above my paygrade to understand why they haven’t.’  They responded, ‘By the district staying quiet, it looks like they are hiding something.”

The solution proposed by that staff member is also enlightening. “USD 416 needs a spokesperson who monitors social media and responds promptly with official word/facts.  It can’t be a rogue board member, and we can’t put this responsibility on the plates of our administrators.”

Is a ‘rogue’ board member one who dares to think and speak independently of the majority?

USD 416 resists transparency

It took a fair amount of pressure over the last four weeks to compel the district to comply with the Open Records request for the emails, and that resistance to transparency seems to be a pattern.

A parent submitted an Open Records request to Biermann for statutory or other documentation to support the district’s claim that employees must take pictures of students for contact tracing purposes.  Despite having been told by a principal that he supports taking photos of students “for tracing/attendance purposes,” Biermann responded that the district doesn’t do contact tracing.

The parent’s Open Records request also sought documentation showing that students are “legally required to participate in contact tracing without doing so voluntarily” and documentation to show that an employee is a certified contact tracer.  A KASB attorney advised Biermann that KORA doesn’t require the district to “look up legal authority,” so Biermann merely said, “the district is possession of no responsive document that would constitute a public record” as defined in state law.

Providing proof that district employees are certified contact tracers is an important civil liberty and legal issue.  According to an Associated Press story, “the coronavirus law that was approved in June says “third parties,” such as employers and event hosts, must get consent from those who tested positive for COVID-19 and close contacts in order to share their information to public health agencies.

“The law also prevents people infected with COVID-19 and close contacts from being “compelled to participate in” contact tracing. Contact tracers and case investigators are now required to read a statement — or create their own version of it — informing recent close contacts that cooperating with health officials is voluntary, Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman Kristi Zears said in an email.”

The bill also requires contact tracers to sign an oath acknowledging familiarity with the rules of the Privacy Act.

The district has produced no evidence to show that any of these requirements have been fulfilled with staff members who believe they are doing contact tracing.

Parents shouldn’t have to go through a formal process to have their questions answered, and hiding behind legal loopholes only adds to the sense that something is being hidden.

Indeed, the entire controversy could have been avoided if the district had directly and honestly answered the parent’s questions in the first place.  She came to the Sentinel for help when she couldn’t get straight answers from the district and we gave them an opportunity to explain before writing our story.  But Biermann ignored the opportunity.

Honest mistakes can certainly happen.  When that occurs, fess up, apologize for the confusion, and try to not repeat it.  But trying to dodge questions and avoid admitting a mistake never turns out well.

Board members and administrators in USD 416 and other districts will hopefully learn from this unfortunate, self-inflicted situation and fully embrace an honest, transparent relationship with parents.

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