TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Pointing to a need to “minimize the amount of time students are removed from in-person learning,” the Florida Department of Health on Wednesday issued a revised rule that gives parents more authority to decide whether children go to school after being exposed to people who have COVID-19.
The emergency rule also continues to require that parents be able to opt students out of school-mask requirements but includes a change that takes aim at some school districts that only allow opt-outs for documented medical reasons. That change says opting out of mask requirements is “at the parent or legal guardian’s sole discretion.”
The issuance of the revised rule quickly short-circuited legal challenges by five school districts to a rule the Department of Health issued Aug. 6 to help carry out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to prevent school mask mandates. Administrative Law Judge Brian Newman said during a telephone hearing Wednesday morning that he did not have any “wiggle room” after the revised rule was issued.
“I don’t think I have any jurisdiction to do anything other than to dismiss this case,” Newman said.
New state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, whose appointment was announced Tuesday by DeSantis, signed the emergency rule. It replaced the Aug. 6 rule that drew heavy attention as some school districts have sought to require students to wear masks to prevent spread of COVID-19.
The school boards in Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Alachua and Leon counties challenged the Aug. 6 rule, which did not include the new provision about parents or legal guardians having “sole discretion” about opting out of school mask requirements.
Another substantial change in the revised rule deals with protocols for students who have been exposed to COVID-19. The new rule says 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 gives parents the option of allowing 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.” Parents also would have the option of quarantining their students for up to seven days.
The Aug. 6 version of the rule said students who have contact with people positive for COVID-19 “should not attend school, school-sponsored activities, or be on school property” until they receive negative COVID-19 tests four days after the last exposure or are asymptomatic and wait seven days after their last exposure.
The change in the revised rule reflects DeSantis’ oft-stated arguments that parents should be able to make choices for their children and that students need to be in school — arguments that Ladapo echoed Tuesday during a news conference to announce his appointment.
An explanation accompanying the revised rule said the Department of Health has conducted a review of data involving children who tested positive for COVID-19 and children who had been in contact with infected people. “The department observed a large number of students who have been required to quarantine for long periods of time, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of days of in-person learning,” the explanation said. “In addition, the department observed no meaningful difference in the number of COVID-19 cases in school-aged children in counties where school districts have imposed mask mandates. It is necessary to minimize the amount of time students are removed from in-person learning based solely on direct contact with an individual that is positive for COVID-19, to ensure parents and legal guardians are allowed the flexibility to control the education and health care decisions of their own children, and to protect the fundamental rights of parents guaranteed under Florida law.”
The revised rule also sets protocols for students who are symptomatic or test positive for COVID-19.
Under one protocol, students will be able to return to school after they receive negative tests and are asymptomatic. Under another protocol, they will be able to return 10 days after the onset of symptoms or positive test results if they have not had fevers for 24 hours and other symptoms are improving. Under a third protocol, students could return with written permission from doctors or advanced registered nurse practitioners.
DeSantis was joined by Ladapo at a news conference Wednesday afternoon in Kissimmee to announce in public the changes and take questions.
“We’ve got a lot of single parent households, including single moms, have to work to put food on the table. Many of our folks in Florida are not able to work from home. They’ve got to actually be at that job and earning a living, and so they get a call maybe the night before saying, ‘Hey, your son and daughter was exposed and they’ll have to quarantine,’” DeSantis said. “One of the things that parents have been most concerned about have been the policies that would quarantine dozens and dozens of healthy students if there was one positive test in a classroom, and that was incredibly disruptive.”
Dr. Adriana Cantville, a pediatric physician at UF Health, and Dr. Mohammed Reza, an infectious disease specialist, told News4Jax that until more children are vaccinated, quarantine is essential to limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
“Once you’re exposed to the illness, you’re a potential carrier, and, unfortunately, people don’t show symptoms right away even when they are positive, so that is the point of quarantine. It’s isolating somebody who may be, because they are exposed, may be developing the virus,” Cantville said. “Allowing parents to send their children who should be under quarantine to school will only do the opposite. More kids are going to get sick. More kids will be having to come out of school, so this is an absolutely disastrous plan.”
“This is just wrong. At the end of the day, it’s just wrong,” Reza said. “Recent data from Duke University showed that children 6-13, 40% had no symptoms but had as much viral particles as somebody that could infect other people.”
One thing that’s unclear at this point is how individual school districts will handle the revised rule. News4Jax has reached out to Duval County Public Schools for a response to the latest move by the state and received this response:
“There are no immediate changes to our current COVID-19 protocols. Leadership of the Florida Department of Health—Duval has advised us that they are awaiting guidance from the state Department of Health. We will work closely with our local Department of Health team and the City of Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel to determine if this rule has any impact on the district’s procedures or operations. If there are changes, we will inform our families and the media at the appropriate time.”
St. Johns County sent the following message to parents about the changes:
Based on (the Florida Department of Health’s) new ruling, you have a choice whether to quarantine your child or not, if they have no (COVID) symptoms. Below is the new email communication that you will receive notifying you of your choices if your child is a close contact:
We have been advised that your child, [student name], has potentially been exposed to a COVID-19 positive individual on [exposure date]. In accordance with the FL DOH Emergency Rule, you may choose to keep your child home to quarantine for a period of time not to exceed seven days. Your child does not need to seek COVID-19 testing or produce a negative test result to return to school tomorrow if he/she is without any symptoms.
If you choose to keep your child home to quarantine, please call the District COVID Support Team at 904-547-8230 to report your child on quarantine.
If you have health-related quarantine questions, we have set up a quarantine call line at 904-819-1101.
To be clear, if your child has NO symptoms and is on quarantine, they may return to school if you choose. This begins today. If you choose to quarantine, you need to contact the District COVID support team and report that you are opting to quarantine your child. This also begins today.
Due to this change in policy, it is more important than ever to monitor your child for symptoms and keep them home if they are not well. We want students to be in school learning and we also want children healthy and safe. We are in this together and will continue to work together to navigate this new normal.