Data about communicable illnesses and attendance rates that were made readily available to an East Lansing Public Schools parent in the first half of the 2022-23 school year are now being denied to her unless she files a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the data every week. Each weekly request will cost her around $22.
Ahnalee Brincks’ children attend Marble Elementary and MacDonald Middle Schools. Like all parents of school-aged children, she’s concerned about what viruses her kids might catch and bring home.
But Brincks’ interest in knowing which communicable diseases are going around those schools arises partly from her professional background. She holds a doctorate in biostatistics and is an associate professor at Michigan State University.
Her work, funded by the National Institutes of Health, looks at, in her words, “health disparities and focuses on advanced statistical methods to optimize interventions for the prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral health problems among adolescents.”
Looking at statewide public health data, Brincks sees plenty of reason to stay alert to the possibility of disease surges at Marble and MacDonald. That’s why she’s been asking for real-time attendance data along with COVID and flu rates. She says getting that information will allow her to take extra precautions – for example, keeping her kids home if a virus is taking off in a school.
“As a scientist, I know there are still a lot of unknowns about the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” she told ELi in an email interview. “We also have vulnerable family members who we see regularly. More recently, the national map for influenza-like illness and the national reporting on health care shortages for pediatric ICUs…have heightened my concern for our health care systems and the community impact of spreading these viruses.”
Brincks also said she seeks attendance data “because not many families seek a high-quality COVID or flu test when a child becomes sick, attendance data can provide a useful proxy for illness levels within the school.”
During the height of the COVID disruptions, the ELPS administration maintained an open COVID dashboard, providing access to real-time data for all families. That ended before this school year.
So, from the start of this school year Brincks reached out on Fridays to the principals at Marble and MacDonald to get data.
“[MacDonald Principal] Amy Martin or one of her staff always responded on Friday,” Brincks said. “[Marble Principal] Josh Robertson typically responded on Monday.”
But then, on Dec. 12, Robertson emailed Brincks to let her know “he would no longer be providing the information and I would need to submit a FOIA request to the district.”
Why is a formal public records request suddenly being required?
ELi contacted Superintendent Dori Leyko to ask why Brinks now needs to file a FOIA request.
“We should have had individuals request health and attendance data through FOIA all along,” Leyko responded by email. “Honestly, I thought it would be a short-term weekly request for a couple of the buildings until COVID numbers dropped, so I made a mistake in just accommodating the request for information instead of having [Brincks] follow the FOIA process of accessing information from the district. When I learned that the request was ongoing, we asked her to request the data through FOIA.”
Brincks heeded the requirement. On Dec. 13, she filed what is called a “subscription” FOIA request with the district. The goal was to get the information without having to file a request every week.
Michigan’s FOIA Handbook explains, “A person has the right to subscribe to future issuances of Public Records that are created, issued, or disseminated on a regular basis. A subscription is valid for up to six months at the request of the subscriber and is renewable.”
In her subscription FOIA request, Brincks asked for records that show the number of MacDonald and Marble students who have recently tested positive for COVID and the number believed to have the flu.
She also requested a FOIA subscription providing recent attendance rates for both schools.
In filing a subscription request, Brincks figured this information was regularly being generated and recorded somewhere, because the school staff had been giving her that information until then.
But the district denied her request in a response returned by ELPS FOIA Coordinator Kelly Hocquard. (Hocquard is also Administrative Assistant to the Superintendent and Board of Ed.)
Hocquard told Brincks, “The information you are seeking is not ‘created, issued, or disseminated on a regular basis’ and therefore does not qualify for a subscription.”
Brincks said this is a curious reply, since the information – including attendance rates – has clearly been regularly produced and recorded, with the obvious exception of periods including long school breaks.
In her reply to ELi, Leyko seemed to confirm that regular data collection, and therefore record production, is regularly occurring through the work of staff in the district’s eight schools.
“The reports submitted to the [Ingham County Health Department] for all communicable diseases (including COVID-19 and influenza) are submitted at the building level, so I do not have district data on hand,” Leyko wrote.
According to Michigan FOIA laws, records produced by school staff are liable to be released under FOIA, even if those records do not reach the district administration.
Lekyko explained the denial of the subscription request by saying the information requested (including attendance data) are irregularly logged.
“We denied the subscription request as the information requested is not created, issued or disseminated on a regular basis as communicable disease data is dependent on parents reporting that info to us and attendance data reports are not written reports regularly created either,” Leyko said.
Leyko indicated Brincks can FOIA the material every week, if she wants, and the district will give the information if there are records for attendance and reported disease rates. (Anything that might reveal specific individuals’ or families’ health status will be redacted.) It’s just not FOIAable under a subscription.
So, Brincks tried filing a FOIA request for the most recent week of data.
The district responded that she must pay $22.14 for one week of information. Notably, under FOIA law, the district will have up to three weeks to provide the data. A delay like that would render the information useless.
“So, they are going to charge me $22 weekly for these data,” Brincks told ELi. “There are 22 weeks left in the school year, totaling $484. I’m ready to give up, which I suspect is the point.”
She’s frustrated with what she sees as an approach that gets in the way of families being able to make data-driven decisions.
“I am not the only parent interested in these data,” she said. “Given the ongoing pandemic, and the national picture of flu, RSV, and Covid infections, as well as the ease with which these viruses can be transmitted in school settings, all parents should have easy and timely access to the data in order to make data-informed decisions for the health of their families.”
But Brincks’ frustration also extends to the process itself. She wishes the district would simply make this information available on the district website, for all parents to access easily.
“I am disappointed to see the ELPS administration add barriers to accessing information that should be easily available to any parent,” she said. “Contacting principals each week for this information takes time, energy, and access to resources that not all families have. Adding a FOIA request is moving in the wrong direction….Data access is important.”