Most colleges including Boston University, say they won’t automatically tell faculty if someone in their class tests positive for COVID-19 to protect students’ privacy. Professors worry about their own safety, and legal experts say professors and students should be wary of the privacy defense.

“Universities that are reopening are obviously and understandably concerned about fanning the fear in the community,” said Northeastern law professor Wendy Parmet, one of the country’s leading health law experts. “Privacy laws are often being scapegoated as justifications for not disclosing information that universities and other organizations don't want to disclose.”

While colleges vary in what testing information they report publicly, Parmet said federal law allows them to release numbers of cases as long as individuals aren’t named and even those laws designed to protect personal information have exceptions for disclosures needed to protect the public.

“Warning people about contacts that they may have had with a dangerous communicable disease such as COVID certainly falls into those exceptions,” Parmet said.

In a statement, a BU spokesperson says the university needs students to trust that administrators won’t disclose the results of their COVID tests so that they, in turn, will trust them with information needed to conduct contact tracing.

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