Need to Know Basis: Who Has a Right to Your COVID-19 Diagnosis?

Cartoon by Emma Hines

This semester, the New Paltz Oracle editorial board has been made aware that SUNY New Paltz health services has been identifying students who have either tested positive for or have been exposed to COVID-19 to their professors; regardless of whether they are taking courses in-person or online. 

As stated on the SUNY New Paltz “New Paltz Forward” FAQ page, when a student tests positive for COVID-19, “All of the faculty teaching courses in which the student is enrolled will be notified, whether those courses are in-person, remote or hybrid.” 

According to Jack Ordway M.D., director of student health services, professors are informed for two reasons: to make them aware that a student who tested positive for COVID-19 was present in their classroom while carrying the virus (in the case of an in-person class); and to alert professors that a student in their class has contracted COVID, and may require accommodations — regardless of whether the course is being offered in-person or online. 

The former of the two offered reasons is undeniably logical; In the case of an in-person class, a professor not only could have been exposed to the virus, but also must understand why a student will be absent from class. In order to understand why the school’s decision to identify students who test positive to online professors, however, we must zoom out. 

SUNY New Paltz, like all other U.S. colleges and schools, falls under the guidance of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA is a federal law that governs the protection of a student’s records — whether academic or health-related — during their time as a student. Now more than ever, with a highly infectious virus causing a global pandemic, disclosure of health information has landed in more of a gray area. In turn, many students may be unaware of their rights regarding who is allowed access to their medical records and information. 

In March of last year, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, FERPA released an FAQ document that explained how FERPA guidelines were to be affected by COVID-19. According to Dr. Ordway, SUNY New Paltz referenced these guidelines when updating the school’s own FERPA policies. Within these guidelines, there are emergency circumstances referenced in which a student’s personally identifiable information (PII) — including their name and address — can be shared without prior consent. 

The document reads: “Although educational agencies and institutions can often address threats to the health or safety of students or other individuals in a manner that does not identify a particular student, FERPA permits educational agencies and institutions to disclose, without prior written consent, PII from student education records to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency, if knowledge of that information is necessary to protect the health or safety of a student or other individuals.”

This last part is key, and explains why professors are provided with a student’s PII along with notice of their diagnosis when they are teaching said student in an in-person setting. However, the language used seems to directly exclude professors teaching online courses from having their students’ PII and diagnosis provided, as this information is hardly necessary to protect the health nor safety of both the student and the professor. 

The document also makes reference to another guideline — one that the decision to provide every professor a student is taking a course with of their diagnosis seems to contradict. It reads: “An educational agency or institution is responsible for making a determination, on a case-by-case basis, whether to disclose PII from education records.” 

As per the language used in the aforementioned “New Paltz Forward” FAQ page, the decision to disclose students’ PII to professors is not being handled on a case-by-case basis, as outlined in the FERPA guidelines; Rather, any confirmed positive COVID-19 case is being considered grounds for disclosing PII. 

Finally, the FERPA FAQ document notes that in order for students’ PII to be disclosed to professors without their written consent, it must be true that “the determination by an educational agency or institution that there is a specific emergency is not based on a generalized or distant threat of a possible or eventual emergency for which the likelihood of occurrence is unknown.” 

However, according to the “New Paltz Forward” FAQ page — along with confirmed student cases of COVID-19 — PII is also disclosed to professors whose students are “suspected” to have COVID-19; meaning, they were directly exposed to COVID-19, but have not yet tested positive themselves. While one could argue that a suspected case of COVID-19 due to direct exposure means the “likelihood of occurrence” (infection) is known, based on data linking direct exposure to positive cases, it truly depends on the circumstances — length, distance, etc. — of the exposure. 

We at The New Paltz Oracle request that SUNY New Paltz health services and administration explain these discrepancies between the guidelines put forth by FERPA in relation to COVID-19, and the school’s own guidelines for who is provided with students’ personal information during these times. We understand that this ongoing pandemic is brand new territory for all involved, and commend our school for the steps they have taken to keep every student, faculty and community member safe; However, we also understand the importance of transparency, and of students’ knowledge of their rights. 

The decision to alert online professors of their students’ contraction of COVID-19 was undoubtedly made with good intentions, and with students’ best interests in mind. The logic behind alerting a professor that their student may require accommodations makes sense; In practice, however, it may be doing more harm than good. 

In a poll posted to The Oracle’s Instagram account (@newpaltzoracle) this week, 77% of responders felt that the decision to provide a COVID-positive students’ online professor with their PII was unethical. 

“If the class is online, it should be the student’s choice whether or not to alert the professor,” said second-year student Owen Smith. “Some students may choose to in order to get extensions on assignments, but some may want to keep the information private.”  

Smith raises a valid argument, and one the college should consider when deciding whether or not to continue the practice. If a student feels their sickness is preventing them from attending virtual lectures or turning in assignments in a timely manner, they are more than welcome to reach out to their professor and explain this. However, some students may have a less severe case of the virus, and not require accommodations at all — based on the information provided by the school, it seems that these students have no say in whether or not their information is shared.

In April of last year, The Oracle ran an editorial that discussed the stigma surrounding a positive COVID-19 test — a stigma that is still present a year later. While some individuals undoubtedly contract and spread the virus due to irresponsible and careless behavior, there are also an overwhelming number of cases that are contracted in unavoidable ways; like from work at an essential job, for example. 

However, the circumstances of exposure/contraction are — of course — not being relayed to instructors when a student tests positive for COVID-19. This could leave students feeling embarrassed, or fearful that their professor is judging them for contracting the virus. Whether this fear is grounded in reality is a moot point; the simple fact that it exists means that the practice of alerting online professors is harmful. 

We at The Oracle appreciate that the school had students’ best interests in mind when determining who would be alerted of their COVID-19 diagnosis. However, this practice is actively hurting the very people it was made to help.

We ask that the practice of notifying professors when a student they teach in an online-only setting has contracted COVID-19 using PII be rethought by student health services and SUNY New Paltz administrators. During these challenging times, the diagnosis itself should be the most stressful thing about receiving a positive COVID-19 test; not worrying about who will be told.