By Grace Ferguson
On Aug 25, Boston University announced that it would not notify professors if a student in one of their classes tests positive for COVID-19.
But the university says its policy is a matter of student privacy.
Even if BU doesn’t identify students by name, it could be easy to figure out who tested positive in smaller classes—the one student who suddenly switches to remote learning is probably the one student who has the virus. If students don’t think their privacy is being protected, BU says they might not be honest to contact tracers.
Ultimately, the debate is a clash between public information and personal privacy.
“This is a classic conflict in public health, especially if we go toward more data-driven public health techniques,” Robert Field, a health policy expert at Drexel University, said. “Having personal data is an extremely powerful tool for treating and preventing diseases.”
Field is a professor himself, and he said he would want to know if one of his students tested positive. Even though masks and social distancing are helpful, Field said we still don’t know everything about COVID-19 transmission.
“So I think there is a risk, and I think others in the room have a right to know when that risk exists,” Field said.
If a professor finds out that one of their students was carrying the virus, Field said they might want to take extra precautions, like wearing a KN95 mask or limiting their time on campus.
“To me, the interest of protection from infection outweighs the interest in protecting the privacy [of students], especially since the disclosure would be indirect—we’re not saying the student’s name would be given to anyone,” Field said. “But it would be a warning to those who are in that class to be extra vigilant.”
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the federal medical privacy law, doesn’t apply to COVID-19 testing at colleges, so faculty can be told about student test results. But the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the federal education privacy law, does apply, which means faculty would be legally bound to keep the identity of infected students private.
Melissa McPheeters, a health policy expert at Vanderbilt University, said BU’s policy shows a lack of faith in professors.
“You know, I think it devalues a professor’s ability to use discretion and take care of their students, to some degree,” McPheeters said. “It’s a little paternalistic to not trust your faculty to do the right thing.”
McPheeters said BU isn’t alone. Lots of universities are trying to figure out how to protect their communities without compromising privacy.
“I do understand that the universities are struggling with that a little bit, and that they do have an obligation to protect the privacy of their students,” McPheeters said. “But they’ve hired these faculty for a reason. They’re good faculty. They should also trust them a little bit.”
George Annas, the director of BU’s Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights, has a different take.
“Actually, I think it’s the right policy,” Annas said.
He’s confident that BU’s current precautions will keep COVID-19 from spreading. Everyone has to wear masks and stay six feet apart in classrooms, and students who test positive have to go into isolation.
“If this was necessary to protect the professor, that’s a whole different thing,” Annas said. “But it’s clearly not.”
Annas added that public health and personal privacy aren’t necessarily at odds.
“Usually, they’re not in conflict. I mean, people have a hard time getting their head around that,” Annas said. “But usually protecting privacy enhances public health, makes people more willing to go to the doctor, more willing to get diagnosed, more willing to seek treatment.”