School administrators and some other school employees, including teachers and counselors, have a duty to report to a local health authority if they suspect that a student or a staff member may have the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Failing to report may constitute a crime. Failing to report or failing to restrict reporting to reports required by law or rule could have ethics implications.

Duty to report suspected cases of coronavirus at school

By law, a local school authority must report “a child attending school who is suspected of having a reportable disease." The list of reportable diseases includes novel coronavirus, which includes COVID-19. The report must be made to a local health authority.

By rule, a school authority includes a superintendent, principal, teacher, school health official, or counselor of a school district or charter school.

The rule also states that anyone having knowledge that a person(s)…is suspected of having COVID-19 should notify the local health authority and provide information known to them concerning the illness and physical condition of such person(s). Note that the use of "person" rather than "child" may require that not only students but school employees with a notifiable illness must be reported. The rule notes that HIPAA “allows reporting without authorization for public health purposes and where required by law.”

The report must be made immediately by phone.

Failing to make a report is a crime

Both the health and safety code and the rules make the failure to report a Class B misdemeanor.

It is also a Class B misdemeanor if during an investigation, a person fails to disclose their health condition or the health of a child or ward. A person can commit an offense by knowingly concealing or attempting to conceal during a health authority’s investigation that the person has been exposed to, or has, a communicable disease, or that a minor child or incompetent adult of whom the person is a parent, managing conservator, or guardian has been exposed to or is the carrier of a communicable disease.

Penalties for a Class B misdemeanor are up to 180 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,000.

Certification implications regarding reports

Failing to make a required report could potentially lead to an investigation by the State Board for Educator Certification and sanctions against an educator’s credentials. Standard 1.7 of the Code of Ethics states that an educator “shall comply with state regulations, written local school board policies, and other state and federal laws.”

In addition to reports to local health authorities, school districts may require similar reports to administrators.

The Code of Ethics potentially makes it an ethical violation to disclose confidential health information without a duty by law to disclose the information. Standard 2.1 of the Code of Ethics states that educators “shall not reveal confidential health or personnel information concerning colleagues unless disclosure serves lawful professional purposes or is required by law.”

Whistleblowing

If a person knows that a school authority failed to report as required by law, that report could be made to a law enforcement authority if the reporter wants the protections of the Texas Whistleblower Act.

What symptoms trigger reporting?

The short answer is that we don’t know, and are unaware of any guidance available at this point. It is a particularly tricky requirement considering that some people who are actively infected with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic. Our suggestion — and it is only that —would be that you report anyone who is showing obvious symptoms of illness, such as chills and fever or sweating, under essentially a “reasonable person” standard. We would also suggest that if a student tells you that "Janie’s mom has COVID-19, and she’s at school today and said she’s really not feeling well," you might want to report that. 

We do not anticipate that there will be widespread prosecutions for failing to report a known or suspected case of COVID-19. Commissioner Morath updated superintendents Aug. 27 on reporting requirements. The mandatory reporting requirement gives you a reasonable expectation that your district will acknowledge and let you know if there are cases in your district so that you can be more alert to your own health precautions and the potential of infection in those with whom you are in contact.

Reporting guide for families

TEA has published a guide for families titled “Education Rights & Responsibilities During COVID-19”. The flyer informs parents of the actions that schools should be taking to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread on campuses. It includes language on the second page that may be of interest to teachers: “Complaints can be filed with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), but, in most cases, parents must first attempt to resolve any problems they have by working with the school and/or district before TEA will review a complaint.” This is important information for teachers who have concerns, and if you are hearing from worried parents you may wish to direct them to this flyer as well.