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Judge Albertson said it would be easy to identify specific individuals if data for daily positive student tests broken down by dormitory were made public.

After reviewing the evidence presented in the Conley v. JMU hearing Aug. 26, Judge Bruce Albertson has issued a ruling denying The Breeze’s Editor-in-chief Jake Conley’s petition for a writ of mandamus. In a letter explaining the verdict, Albertson said the university hadn’t violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

On behalf of The Breeze, Conley made several requests to JMU for COVID-19 data between August 2020 and January 2021. The university issued a partial denial to The Breeze’s initial FOIA request on Aug. 26, 2020, requesting the following daily data: 

  • Number of tests administered
  • Number of positive student tests, broken down by number per campus dormitory and self-reports from off-campus students
  • Number of negative student tests
  • Number of positive faculty/staff tests
  • Number of negative faculty/staff tests
  • Number of students in quarantine or isolation

Conley’s complaint sought a writ of mandamus specifying three sets of records requested — the daily number of positive student tests broken down by number per on-campus residence hall for the dates of Aug. 17, 2020, to Sept. 16, 2020; Sept. 17, 2020, to Jan. 18, 2021, and Jan. 19, 2021, to Jan. 22, 2021.

John Knight, senior assistant attorney general and university counsel, said in court that the records corresponding to the first set of data requested don’t exist. As for the second set of data, Conley conceded that it was provided by JMU and didn’t assert a violation of timeliness. Therefore, both of these sets were removed from the dispute.

The only remaining alleged violation of FOIA was the third set of data, which encompassed the dates of Jan. 19 through Jan. 22. Conley conceded that he received the data in March 2021. Judge Albertson said he found that this delay in providing the information was appropriate.

When it comes to the requests for daily positive student tests broken down by dormitory, Judge Albertson said it’d be easy to identify specific individuals if this data was made public. Because students who test positive are placed in the isolation dormitory for 10-14 days, Judge Albertson said someone could simply connect an individual’s prolonged absence to the data and identify them as COVID-19 positive.

The parties of the case will be present in Rockingham Circuit Court on Oct. 4 to hear the final ruling.

Contact the news desk at breezenews@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.