States

To Quarantine or Not? Florida Is Letting Parents Decide

By Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel — September 23, 2021 6 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, shown at a news conference last month, appointed a new surgeon general for the state who issued an emergency rule that the decision to quarantine students will be up to parents, not school districts.
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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.”

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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.

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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.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT


    1. Florida

    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.

    2. Georgia

    On March 29, Gov. Kemp signed the “Unmask Georgia Students Act” which allows parents to exempt their child from a school mask requirement. The law went into effect immediately.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, 2021, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. On Jan. 25, 2022, a federal appeals panel narrowed that injunction. Iowa’s attorney general announced the state is not enforcing the ban while awaiting further action from the court. On May 16, 2022 a U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the injunction.

    4. Oklahoma

    On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of school mask mandates if they choose.

    5. Utah

    In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.

    6. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling. On April 25, Gov. Ducey signed HB2616, which prevents schools from requiring a student to wear a mask without first getting parental consent. The ban, which replaces the one blocked by the courts, will go into effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    4. Tennessee
    5. Texas

    On March 17, an appeals court upheld an injunction that blocked Gov. Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates in schools, finding it is unlawful and exceeding the governor's authority. This is not the first time the state's ban has been halted by a judge.

    MASK REQUIREMENT IN EFFECT


    1. Hawaii

    Although Hawaii's state-wide indoor mask mandate ended on March 25, indoor masking will still be required in public schools at least through the summer.

    PREVIOUSLY HAD MASK REQUIREMENT


    1. California

    On Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    2. Connecticut

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Lamont announced that the school mask rule would expire Feb. 28. He signed a bill on Feb. 15 that made the expiration date official.

    3. Delaware

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Carney amended his emergency order to allow his state-level school mask requirement to expire March 31. On Feb. 28, he announced that masks would no longer be required effective at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1.

    4. District of Columbia

    On March 8, the department of health released updated guidelines that recommend universal masking only when community COVID-19 levels are high.

    5. Illinois

    On Feb. 5, a judge issued a temporary restraining order on the governor's statewide mask requirement. On Feb. 25, the state supreme court vacated that order. On the same day, the governor announced he would lift the requirement on Feb. 28.

    6. Kentucky

    Kentucky's school mask mandate ended in September, when the state legislature voted to limit the governor’s emergency powers.

    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, which was extended on Jan. 19, students were required to wear masks in schools, but districts could opt out of the mandate if they adopted an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols. On Feb. 16, Gov. Bel Edwards extended the order without requiring masking in schools.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but allowed school districts to opt out if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 22, the state board of education voted to rescind the mandate. On Feb. 25, a state legislative committee gave final approval to lift the mandate effective March 1.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Sept. 27, the state began allowing schools to apply for a waiver from the face covering rules for vaccinated individuals if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 9, officials announced the statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools would be lifted on February 28.

    10. Nevada

    On Feb. 10, Gov. Sisolak announced the immediate suspension of the school mask requirement. The previous mask requirement had only applied to counties with populations of 100,000 people or more.

    11. New Jersey

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Murphy announced plans to end his state’s school-mask requirement on March 7.

    12. New Mexico

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Grisham announced the end of the mask requirement, effective immediately.

    13. New York

    On Jan. 24, a judge struck down the state's mask mandate. A day later, an appeals judge restored the mandate. On Feb. 27, Gov. Hochul announced the mandate would be lifted on March 2.

    14. Oregon

    On Feb. 7, health officials said the state would drop its school mask requirement no later than March 31. On Feb. 24, the Oregon Health Authority announced the requirement would lift on March 19. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    15. Pennsylvania

    A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schoolchildren was thrown out by the state Supreme Court on December 10.

    16. Rhode Island

    On Feb. 9, Gov McKee announced the school mask mandate would only remain in effect until March 4. On Feb. 15, he signed an executive order specifying that the order would take effect at 5 p.m. on March 4.

    17. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    18. Washington

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Inslee announced the state's school mask requirement will end effective March 21. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

  • NOTES
    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.”

Copyright (c) 2021, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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