New Surgeon General shakes up school COVID protocols and leaves Constitutional questions unanswered

By: - September 23, 2021 3:44 pm

Student wearing mask. Credit: Stock photo/Getty Images.

In a dramatic turnabout involving Florida’s new surgeon general, the state Department of Health has created a new COVID-19 related emergency rule that allows parents to keep kids in school even if they have been exposed to the virus.

Previously, students would have to quarantine at home for a certain time period before going back to school, raising Constitutional questions about who controls public schools — the executive branch, local school boards or parents.

New Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who just came on board Tuesday, signed off on the new rule Wednesday to the surprise of school districts that have been dealing with an August emergency rule related to COVID protocols at schools.

Ladapo’s new rule replaces that August rule, throwing a wrench into legal and administrative challenges set by some Florida school districts.

Districts such as Leon, Orange, Alachua and Broward, for example, now need to reassess how the new emergency rule interacts with current local COVID policies regarding masks and quarantining, and whether to push forward with continued legal challenges.

Chris Petley, communication’s staffer with Leon County schools in the state capital, said the district is looking into their options following the rule change.

“I think everyone’s in the same boat,” Petley told the Phoenix. “That (the rule) came out of the blue yesterday.”

The previous rule stated:

“Students who are known to have been in direct contact with an individual who received a positive diagnostic test for COVID- 19 should not attend school, school-sponsored activities, or be on school property until:

“(a) The student is asymptomatic and receives a negative diagnostic COVID- 19 test after four days from the date of last exposure to the COVID- 19 positive individual; or
“(b) The student is asymptomatic and seven days have passed since the date of last exposure to the COVID- 19 positive individual. ”

But the new rule gives parents the decisions to keep their children at home or at school.

The rules states:

“Schools shall allow parents or legal guardians the authority to choose how their child receives education after having direct contact with an individual that is positive for COVID-19.”

It continues:

“Parents or legal guardians of students who are known to have been in direct contact with an individual who received a positive diagnostic test for COVID-19 may choose one of the following options:

  1. “Allow the student to attend school, school-sponsored activities, or be on school property, without restrictions or disparate treatment, so long as the student remains asymptomatic; or
  2. “Quarantine the student for a period of time not to exceed seven days from the date of last direct contact with an individual that is positive for COVID-19.”

That’s a big change from the earlier protocols, about seven weeks ago.

“Essentially, the state is responding to the legal challenges of its rules by repealing them and creating new ones, with limited public notice. This appears disingenuous and counter to the Florida Department of Health’s stated mission to ‘protect, promote and improve the health of all people in Florida through integrated state, county and community efforts,'” Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a written statement Wednesday.

Simon continued: “This rule is likely to promote the spread of COVID-19 by preventing schools from implementing the common-sense masking and quarantine policies recommended by the vast majority of health care professionals, including those here in Alachua County. The state is, in fact, doubling down on policies that may ultimately put students, staff and the entire community at greater risk.”

She also said that the district will be reviewing the new rules with legal counsel and medical advisors, but will continue implementing a strict mask mandate that only allows students to opt-out for a medical reason.

The Florida Constitution says school boards have authority to decide how their schools run.

But a new law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights says that Florida state agencies, including school districts, may not infringe on a parent’s right to direct the upbringing, education, and health care of their child, “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest…”

State education officials and the DeSantis administration argue that mask policies, and now asymptomatic quarantines, should be left up to parents.

Ladapo’s language also slightly alters language of an already contentious mask policy.

“Schools may adopt requirements for students to wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt the student out of wearing a face covering or mask at the parent or legal guardian’s sole discretion,” the new emergency rule says. The phrase “at the parent or legal guardian’s sole discretion” is new in comparison to the former rule.

In Brevard County, where the school board recently voted to keep their strict mask mandates,  the district will be adhering to the quarantine changes posted by the new rule, a spokesman said, allowing parents to decide if their asymptomatic student who have been exposed to COVID-19 should attend school.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.

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