Florida’s newly announced protocols that allow parents to decide whether their children should quarantine or stay in school if they are asymptomatic after being exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 could put many more students at risk of becoming infected, according to Dr. Sunil Joshi, an immunologist with Baptist Health.
The new rule eliminated previous mandates requiring students to quarantine for at least four days off campus if they’ve been exposed. Under the new guidelines, students who have been exposed can continue going to campus, “without restrictions or disparate treatment,” provided they are asymptomatic. They can also quarantine, but no longer than seven days, provided they do not get sick.
“Quarantining healthy students is incredibly damaging for their educational advancement," Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday at a news conference in Kissimmee. “It’s also disruptive for families. We are going to be following a symptoms-based approach."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who get infected can spread the virus starting from two days before they have any symptoms. The CDC recommends that a student should quarantine for 14 days if they are unvaccinated. They can shorten the quarantine to seven days by testing negative, according to the CDC.
Joshi said the number of students exposed because children aren’t quarantining will be “much higher” than most people realize.
“(With) this delta variant, one person can spread it to between eight and nine different people before you end up being quarantined. If you have two days before you show symptoms, meaning two days before you then end up getting tested or end up quarantining yourself, you do have the risk of spreading this to a larger number of people,” Joshi said. “And if you think about a classroom size, a typical classroom size is between 20 and 25 kids. If one person has the ability to spread it to between eight and nine other children, then you can imagine how quickly people are going to get infected.”
Joshi pointed out one of the biggest issues with the current contact tracing system is that it’s being handled by the Department of Health and not the schools.
“It really does seem like this is the type of process that should be given to the schools themselves because the schools can certainly understand where the child was, who they were exposed to much faster than some outside agency can and then the parents can understand this much, much faster as well,” Joshi said. “Right now, unfortunately, the way it’s being done is delaying the process and in the process, more and more kids are getting sick until the parents take it into their own hands to try to figure it out, so it’s incredibly frustrating.”
The president of a statewide teachers’ union said school districts need all the tools necessary to keep children safe.
“Limiting districts’ options and blocking them from following CDC guidelines is not in the best interest of the health of our students, employees or families," said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association.
DeSantis named Ladapo to the job on Tuesday. Ladapo, who previously was a UCLA doctor and health policy researcher, shares the governor's approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic. Like DeSantis, Ladapo has said he doesn’t believe in school closures, lockdowns or vaccine mandates.
DeSantis' administration has opposed mask and vaccine mandates, fought local school boards over their efforts to require students to wear masks in schools and championed the use of monoclonal antibodies as a treatment for those who get sick with COVID-19.
Unchanged from the earlier rules are requirements that students with the virus either quarantine for 10 days, receive a negative test and be asymptomatic before returning to campus or offer a doctor's note granting permission.
As in the previous guidelines, schools can require masks as long as students can opt out, though the new rules add language that it’s “at the parent or legal guardian’s sole discretion.”
School officials in Alachua, Broward, Leon and Miami-Dade and Orange counties recently challenged the state’s prohibition against mask mandates. But the Florida Department of Health argued that its new rule should lead to the dismissal of the lawsuit that targeted the old rule. An administrative law judge agreed Wednesday, saying no decision on the validity of the rule could be made since it had been repealed.
Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon called the Department of Health rule changes “disingenuous."
“Essentially, the State is responding to the legal challenges of its rules by repealing them and creating new ones, with limited public notice,” Simon said in a statement.
Joshi said parents have a right to expect that their students not only receive an education at school but also “come home healthy as well.”
“The school districts throughout the state will continue to work to try to keep our children healthy but in the process, help keep our community healthy and whether that means that they’re going to defy this new protocol is yet to be seen but I have a feeling there will be a lot of discussion about that over the next few weeks to come,” Joshi said.