Coach taking photos of student-athletes? What KC-area school uproar says about COVID

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Social media erupted in the Louisburg school district this past week after questions were raised about a teacher/coach taking photographs of student-athletes on his personal cell phone.

As it turns out, it was a completely innocent group shot, apparently taken as a quick way to record attendance. But a parent’s perfectly valid questions about its propriety — was it a way to collect COVID-19 contact tracing data, and did parents sign up for this? — led to all kinds of alarming and, frankly, unfair conjecture about the teacher and his motives.

In 21st century America, where seemingly everyone is armed with a camera, a social media account and a runaway imagination, careers of good, upstanding teachers can be put in cruel peril by the gallery’s knee-jerk recklessness.

It doesn’t help that the district sent the concerned parent, Tiffany Ellison, mixed signals — first that the photo-taking was contact tracing, and later that it was only “cohorting” and attendance-taking which would, by the way, continue. Understandably frustrated, she alerted the media and set out to address the school board April 15.

Nor did it help that the issue’s unstoppable force ran up against an immovable school board — which only grudgingly agreed to hear Ellison, tried to cut her off, then voted 4-3 against a prohibition of taking attendance photos on personal devices. Or, as dissenting board member Dr. Doug Shane sees it, the unauthorized and perhaps illegal collection of contact tracing data.

The result was a protocol and communication perfect storm, set off by what amounts to the flutter of a butterfly’s wings. Which shows you just how unstable the social and educational atmosphere is in the time of COVID-19. In a pastoral Kansas school district, no less.

Teachers and administrators aren’t walking on eggshells. They’re walking on eggshells with landmines inside. Yet, in fairness, parents also have never had to be so protective of their children’s school records and images.

And in the era of contact tracing, we’ve never had to be so vigilant of our rights. Indeed, Linn County had to be sued last May to stop from requiring businesses to keep a record of customers’ names and phone numbers for government review. And in August, a letter from the Kansas Justice Institute was needed to induce the Riley County Board of Health to stop forcing businesses to screen employees’ health and share that information with the government.

These are not small issues. A camel’s nose leads to a very large animal.

It’s never been more important, then, for educators and parents to work together, respect and trust each other more, and communicate more effectively. Otherwise, rights and even careers are in danger.

Despite the Louisburg school board’s inaction, a calm and collected Superintendent Dr. Brian Biermann says photo taking for cohorting — which is nothing more than grouping students — won’t go on anymore. While larger school districts can hire certified contact tracers, smaller districts such as Louisburg rely on the local health department. Biermann maintains the photo-taking never was for contact tracing, which no one at the district is certified to perform.

Good — though Shane thoroughly believes that collecting contact tracing data without permission was exactly what was going on. And, he says, photo taking has nothing to do with cohorting.

Yet more red flags for educators.

Ellison is stepping back from the controversy, feeling the school board is now in a good position to further study the issue. And both she and Shane argue the district’s consent form parents sign at the start of the school year needs rewriting, as it either doesn’t allow such picture-taking of students for attendance on personal devices, or doesn’t do so in plain English.

For his part, Biermann pledges the district will make sure the consent form is crystal clear when parents enroll their kids.

“They don’t make any sense,” the medically educated Shane says of the forms, “and there’s no way a reasonable person could understand what they’re consenting to.”

It’s critical they do understand, not just in Lewisburg but in your district, too.

Every student, parent, teacher, administrator and school board member should learn from the fracas, which showed the delicate, dangerous balance between the need to contain the deadly virus while maintaining the privacy and civil rights of our students.



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