On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18, Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.
Children can now be sent back to school without quarantining even if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus — as long as they have no symptoms.
The decision will be up to parents, not school districts, under an emergency rule signed Wednesday by Florida’s new surgeon general.
The new rule is likely to intensify the debate over parents’ rights vs. the need for public health precautions in schools. It elated parents who think their children have been sent home unnecessarily, but it may panic parents who are afraid students will spread COVID-19 just because they do not show symptoms.
Previously, state rules required students to quarantine off campus at least four days after exposure to someone with the virus. Some parents had complained that children were missing weeks of school, exacerbating a loss in academic performance that has been dubbed the “COVID slide.”
The new rule was issued “in light of the unnecessary exclusion of healthy students from in-person learning and the urgent need to provide updated COVID-19 guidance to school districts,” read the order signed by Dr. Joseph Ladapo, hired Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ladapo is known for essays questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and the effectiveness of masks. He has supported public health policies that call for herd immunity through natural infection.
Some parents and school officials worry his new rule on student quarantines could lead to increased infections among school-aged children, already one of the fastest-growing age groups for COVID-19 cases.
“Now we can’t even quarantine? It’s the sole discretion of the parent or guardian? It doesn’t make any sense,” Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said. “We’re playing games with people’s lives. People are still dying every day. It’s just one punch after another.”
Natasha Gonell, whose son attends a Pembroke Pines middle school, was also surprised.
“I consider this gross negligence,” Gonnell said. “There’s an incubation period when one comes in contact with someone infected with COVID, which means a student may be asymptomatic for a few days, and during those few days they will be spreading it to others.”
Dr. Debra Robinson, a retired physician who serves on the Palm Beach County School Board, said she agrees with the surgeon general that prolonged quarantines were harmful to kids. But she said his solution “is not aligned to good public health.”
“We all know that one of the major issues with COVID is the asymptomatic spread. And so apparently the suggestion is we ignore this fact and allow students to stay in school without any consideration for the possibility of infecting others,” Robinson said.
To try to mitigate asymptomatic spread, the Palm Beach County School Board said the school district would expand testing to asymptomatic students when it becomes available. It was not immediately clear Wednesday night how the decision would intersect with the surgeon general’s order.
Palm Beach County schools were averaging about 4,000 quarantines a day a few weeks ago, Robinson said. The large number convinced the district to mandate that all students wear masks, defying the state Health Department and DeSantis, who said they must be optional. All the other large districts in Florida have imposed similar rules, including Broward and Miami-Dade. The state’s ban on mask mandates remains in effect under the new state order.
Palm Beach County had 1,524 students and Broward had 1,526 students in quarantine Tuesday. Broward Miami-Dade reported 3,332 students quarantined as of Friday, the most recent count.
The new rule puts quarantine decisions in the hands of parents, who can decide whether their child goes to class and participates in school activities, as long as the child has no symptoms. The old rule required at least a four-day quarantine followed by a negative COVID-19 test or a seven-day quarantine without a test before a child without symptoms could return to campus.
The most recent rules were already more relaxed than last school year, when students often had to quarantine for two weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that unvaccinated students quarantine for 14 days after exposure.
“What is confusing is the provision would absolutely empower a parent without any medical guidance, without any tests, after the child had direct contact with someone who was infected, it’s the parent’s decision to return their child to school,” said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.
Carvalho said the new Health Department rule is inconsistent with any guidance he’s heard from the CDC or local health officials.
Deerfield Beach parent Diana Morilla said she felt the most recent rules were working well. Her elementary-student son was quarantined twice for two weeks each last year but so far this year, neither of her two kids has had to stay home.
“It just seems like this is going to be trial and error, and unfortunately our kids are going to be used as guinea pigs to see if this method is going to work,” she said.
But some parents celebrated the decision, believing school and health officials have been too quick to quarantine students.
“Best news ever!!!!” Davie parent Melanie Banks tweeted. “Healthy children do not need to quarantine and miss out on a decent education.”
Lapado’s rule fits with DeSantis and other Republican leaders’ focus on parental rights but likely will be another flashpoint in the ongoing debate about how public schools should handle COVID cases.
Lapado said Tuesday he opposed COVID-related mandates and lockdowns and wanted people to make their own choices about health care.
“Florida will completely reject fear,” he told reporters Tuesday after his appointment was announced in Tallahassee.
DeSantis, speaking at a news conference in Kissimmee, said quarantines hurt children’s education and disrupt working parents’ lives.
“One of the things that the parents have been most concerned about have been policies that would quarantine dozens and dozens of healthy students,” he said. “That’s been a huge, huge impediment to having a normal function school year.”
Instead of automatic quarantines for students exposed to someone who tested positive, the state will follow a “symptoms-based approach” similar to that used by some European countries, DeSantis said. That should help reduce the number of students who are not sick and likely will never get sick from missing school.
“That’s going to make it so much better for so many folks,” DeSantis added. “This is something that is long overdue.”
The new rule also prompted an administrative law judge Wednesday to dismiss the challenge to the state’s mask mandate brought by several school districts, including Broward.
The state requested the dismissal, arguing the challenge was based on a rule that is now moot. Judge Brian Newman agreed, saying there was “no wiggle room whatsoever” to allow a challenge based on a repealed rule to proceed.
MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
MASK REQUIREMENT IN EFFECT
PREVIOUSLY HAD MASK REQUIREMENT
In January 2022, the Missouri attorney general, Eric Schmitt, sued some school districts that required masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 were illegal. (The ruling was interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he would also crack down on schools with mask mandates. In mid-March, Schmitt began dropping lawsuits against school districts that no longer required masks.
On Feb. 23, New Hampshire’s governor announced the state was no longer recommending universal indoor masking and therefore schools have to end mask mandates, arguing they violate state education department rules. Soon after, the department advised districts that the mandates “are inconsistent with” their rules. There’s disagreement over whether districts still have the authority to require masks, but at least one district changed its policy in response. Additionally, a bill to ban mask mandates is making its way through the state legislature.
Updated 5/18/2022 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here
The Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Alachua school districts all adopted mask mandates in defiance of state rules, saying they were needed to protect the health of students and staff during the pandemic and arguing the state rule was “inconsistent,” “arbitrary”, and adopted in ways that did not follow state law.
“I’m just very sad. We thought we would get an opportunity for a hearing on Friday where we could show data that proves using masks as a mitigation tool has significantly reduced the number of people who need to be quarantined,” Osgood said. “Now we get this new rule, and we have to start the back and forth again on protecting the lives of children instead of allowing the district to focus on education and getting through this pandemic.”
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