New Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo issued an emergency rule Wednesday letting parents decide if their asymptomatic children should quarantine after exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
The Department of Health rule, titled “Protocols for Controlling COVID-19 in School Settings,” encourages routine cleaning of classrooms and high-traffic areas and states that students should “practice routine hand washing throughout the day.”
It states that students should stay home if they are sick and allows students to wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure but also says, “the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.”
New protocols for symptomatic or COVID-19 positive students are as follows: “Students experiencing any symptoms consistent with COVID- 19 or who have received a positive diagnostic test for COVID- 19 should not attend school, school-sponsored activities, or be on school property until the student receives a negative diagnostic COVID-19 test and is asymptomatic; or 10 days have passed since the onset of symptoms or positive test result, the student has had no fever for 24 hours and the student’s other symptoms are improving; or the student receives written permission to return to school from a medical doctor.”
The doctor must be licensed under chapter 458, an osteopathic physician must be licensed under chapter 459, and an advanced registered nurse practitioner can sign off if the person is licensed under chapter 464, according to the rule.
The protocols for 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 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 the student is asymptomatic and seven days have passed since the date of last exposure to the COVID-19 positive individual,” the rule states.
The rule defines “direct contact” as 15 minutes of exposure within 6 feet. If a student becomes symptomatic after an exposure to an individual that has tested positive for COVID- 19, that student should follow the same procedures as a symptomatic or COVID-19 positive student.
The rule also addresses protocol for students who have recovered from a prior COVID-19 infection.
“A student who has received a positive diagnostic test for COVID-19 in the previous 90 days and who is known to have been in direct contact with an individual who has received a positive diagnostic test for COVID- 19 is not subject to the protocols…so long as the student remains asymptomatic,” the rule states.
But if a student who has recovered from a previous COVID- 19 infection becomes symptomatic, the rule states that the student should follow the procedures for symptomatic or COVID-19 positive students.
The same rules for a student who is within 90 days of recovering from COVID-19 apply to students that are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, according to the rule.
The rule also emphasizes that any student whose parents or legal guardian have opted them out of wearing a face mask, “shall not be subject to any harassment or discriminatory treatment, including but not limited to, relegation to certain physical locations, isolation during school activities, or exclusion from any school-sponsored events or activities.”
Ladapo said the rule reflects the need to weigh costs and benefits in public health policies.
“We must make sure that we are doing what is right for parents and for students,” he said in a statement. “There’s not a single high-quality study that shows that any child has ever benefited from forced quarantining policies, but we have seen demonstrable and considerable harm to children.”
The new guidelines come just one day after Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Ladapo—who is also a new UF professor—to the role of surgeon general. They also come after almost two months of legal wrangling over the previous rule then-Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued in early August.
In a Wednesday statement, Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said the new rule is a way for the state to avoid the district’s legal challenge.
“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.” 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.’”
Simon said while the new guidelines seek to protect the rights of parents who do not want their children to wear masks, it does not provide a choice for parents who want to send their children to a school where all students wear masks.
“I find it ironic that the new state rule begins with the phrase ‘Because of an increase in COVID-19 infections, largely due to the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant…’ Simon said. “In fact, 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.”
Simon said the district, along with its legal counsel and medical advisers, will review the new rules and any notifications from the state.
“In the meantime, we will continue to follow the masking and quarantine policies currently in place in our schools,” Simon said.