Coronavirus: Schools can release student ID without parental consent

Disclosures under “health and safety emergency” exception to privacy law are limited to law enforcement, public health officials, trained medical personnel and parents
By: | March 12, 2020
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MARCH 11: Students leave the Thurgood Marshal Elementary school after the Seattle Public School system was abruptly closed due to coronavirus fears on March 11, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Schools will be closed for a minimum of two weeks. The system is the largest public school district in Washington State. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the U.S. Education Department’s Student Privacy Policy Office (SPPO) announced that districts may disclose personally identifiable information about students without parental consent during a “health and safety emergency,” such as what we are seeing with the coronavirus pandemic.

This exception to the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act’s (FERPA) nondisclosure rule does not allow for a blanket release of sensitive information. Disclosures under the exception, SPPO explained, are generally limited in time to the period of the emergency and to appropriate parties, such as law enforcement, public health officials, trained medical personnel, and parents.

“If an educational agency or institution, taking into account the totality of the circumstances, determines that an articulable and significant threat exists to the health or safety of a student in attendance … as a result of the virus that causes COVID-19, it may disclose, without prior written consent, PII (personally identifiable information) from student education records to appropriate officials at a public health department,” SPPO said.

The agency also emphasized that if a district learns that a student or multiple students are out sick due to coronavirus, the district may disclose information about the students’ illness to other students and their parents in the community— but only if the information is cleansed of personally identifiable information.

For example, a district would not violate FERPA if it releases the fact that individuals are absent due to coronavirus but does not disclose the individuals’ identities, SPPO said. Additionally, SPPO confirmed that because FERPA only applies to education records pertaining to students, nothing in the law prevents schools from telling parents and students that a specific teacher or other school official has the coronavirus. However, SPPO advised districts that state law may apply in those situations.

The agency recommended that districts work with state and local public health officials to understand how, what and when student information can be shared in the context of coronavirus.