UGA Admin Building Mug.jpg (copy)

The University of Georgia Administration Building located on North Campus. (Photo/Jason Born)

The University of Georgia again told faculty to refrain from independently reporting a student’s positive COVID-19 test to their classmates, according to an email obtained by The Red & Black Thursday.

Instructors need approval from their school’s dean before disclosing. Provost Jack Hu and General Counsel Michael Raeber signed the email in response to a petition circulating through university staff that called on the University System of Georgia to allow faculty to freely report a COVID-19 case in their classrooms. UGA told faculty last week not to reveal a positive case, and the name of the student must remain anonymous. 

In response on Friday, UGA mathematics professor and United Campus Workers of Georgia member Joe Fu lit a printed copy of the memo on fire in front of the provost’s office. As the flames were burning, Fu called the email “bullshit”. 

“UGA’s administration has been acting like this for decades,” Fu said. “Now it’s a matter of life and death.” 

UGA cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a 1974 federal law that protects student education records. Hu hasn’t responded to a request for comment as of press time. 

The university’s registrar office sent an annual email Friday morning outlining students’ FERPA rights, but the email didn’t mention COVID-19.

Disclosures of COVID-19 info should be anonymous, according to the U.S. Department of Education, but UGA said even eliminating identifying information might still be too much.  

“Whether a disclosure is permissible under FERPA — either because it is sufficiently de-identified or because there is an articulable health or safe emergency — is an important determination that the institution should make carefully and consistently,” the email said. 

Frank LoMonte, a media law professor at the University of Florida, wrote a blog about baseless FERPA claims. He said UGA’s interpretation wouldn’t have qualified for inclusion. 

“This falls in a gray area,” LoMonte said. “Ultimately, it is the university and not the individual professor that would be financially liable if a bad judgment call was made. … I think that’s a legit policy as long as there is a mechanism put in place to notify students that they need to get tested.” 

The Georgia Institute of Technology had a publicly available template faculty could use to reveal a positive COVID-19 case to their class without saying the students’ name. As of Friday afternoon, the template is no longer on the website. 

Georgia Tech instructors receive word from the Office of the Dean of Students in the event of a positive case, according to the provost’s website. Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 tracking page lists where each positive case originated under a “Campus Impact” section.    

Other universities haven’t taken Georgia Tech’s approach. The University of Alabama sent an email to members of its English department threatening “serious consequences” if faculty disclosed COVID-19 info to students, according to the Washington Post

UGA disagreed in its email with the conclusions made in the same Washington Post article. USG, which oversees UGA and Georgia Tech, doesn’t have a system-wide policy on disclosing individual COVID-19 positive students as of press time. 

Fu and other professors called on USG to make a ruling in line with Georgia Tech’s communication strategy. 

“[Disclosing positive tests] will empower students to make more informed decisions about getting tested, attending class, and being in contact with friends, family, and loved ones with comorbidities for COVID-19,” the petition said. 

The U.S. Department of Education released FERPA coronavirus guidelines in March. At issue was whether or not schools can divulge positive COVID-19 cases to other students. The department’s answer: “It depends, but generally yes.” 

A positive case can be disclosed so long as the identity of an individual with COVID-19 can’t be presumed by a reasonable person, the DOE said. 

UGA has the legal right to give deans the power to make disclosure decisions, but LoMonte said students shouldn’t be kept in the dark. They might already know that their classmate tested positive anyway. 

“That’s one of the fallacies about privacy,” said LoMonte, a 2000 graduate of UGA School of Law. “People are going to make their own inferences whether the school gives out information or not. If I’m in a class with eight people, and all of a sudden one of the chairs is empty for 14 days, I’m going to assume the student tested positive for COVID.”