Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced that the state has put out a revised rule which follows a "symptom-based approach" to quarantining students, meaning asymptomatic children exposed to Covid-19 in classrooms could be sent back to school by parents.
"If somebody is symptomatic, of course they stay home. If there's a close contact, but somebody has not developed any symptoms -- you monitor them, you notify the parent," DeSantis said. "The parent always has the right to have their kids stay home, if they think that's in the best interest of the student and the family 100 percent, we would not want to intrude on that. But if a parent has a healthy child, that child has a right to be in school."
DeSantis said the new policy recognizes that quarantining healthy students is "incredibly damaging" for students' educational advancement and disruptive for families.
Dr. Joe Ladapo, Florida's new surgeon general and Department of Health secretary, said, "It's also important to respect the rights of parents as the governor described.
"We respect that some parents may be less comfortable sending their kid back to school after being exposed. And so the new rule allows for those parents to keep their children home for a period of time. And the new role also allows for parents who are more comfortable letting their healthy child return to school," Lapado said.
The decision has been criticized by school officials who are in favor of Covid-19 preventative measures such as mask mandates and additional quarantining.
"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," said Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon in a statement. "The State is, in fact, doubling down on policies that may ultimately put students, staff and the entire community at greater risk."
With the spread of the Delta variant driving a surge of cases as the new school year opened, schools in some states have faced difficulties balancing Covid-19 prevention with differing statewide orders.
Alachua County is among those in Florida where school systems have come under fire from DeSantis for defying the state's ban on mask mandates.
"We will be reviewing the new rules and any notifications we receive from the State with our legal counsel and medical advisors. In the meantime, we will continue to follow the masking and quarantine policies currently in place in our schools," Simon said.
Asymptomatic cases may be missed, research finds
Regarding the quarantining of students exposed, recent research has found that regular Covid-19 testing of all students and staff in schools can catch positive cases that symptom-based testing may miss.
As many as nine in 10 cases among students and seven in 10 cases among staff may be missed by conventional reporting mechanisms, according to research published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Network Open.
For the study, students and staff in three schools in Omaha, Nebraska, participated in a weekly PCR-testing program between November 9 and December 11 last year. Over the study period, nearly 2,900 self-collected saliva samples from 458 staff and 315 students with no symptoms were tested.
Among those, 22 students and 24 staff members tested positive, a higher rate than those identified through symptom-based testing strategies, the researchers noted. The case rate was 7% among students and 5.3% among staff in the weekly testing program, compared to 1.2% among students and 2.1% among staff using conventional reporting mechanisms. Cases detected even exceeded the infection rates reported at the county level.
The researchers said that the differences in community-case rates and those among students and staff in the weekly testing program suggest that the strategy may help mitigate school-based transmission risk.
- by Rebekah Riess and Leyla Santiago, CNN