Florida's new top health official issued a controversial emergency order Wednesday that lets parents choose whether their children will quarantine after they are exposed to the coronavirus.
The order, signed by Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, still requires children with covid-19 symptoms or a positive coronavirus test to isolate. But children who are exposed to the coronavirus by coming into close contact with someone who tests positive do not have to stay home if they do not have symptoms.
Ladapo was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who shares many of his views about how to approach the pandemic, including those that run counter to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The physician, who previously was a health policy researcher at UCLA, has taken up controversial views, penning an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that questioned the safety of coronavirus vaccinations for low-risk groups.
At a news conference Wednesday at NeoCity Academy in Kissimmee, Ladapo said the new order reflects his approach of considering "both costs and benefits."
"When kids are taken out of school, when they're kept out of school, it's extremely harmful," Ladapo said.
DeSantis said the rule was critical to keeping children in classrooms. Quarantining students who appear healthy "is incredibly damaging for their educational advancement," DeSantis said at the news conference. "It's also incredibly disruptive to families throughout the state of Florida."
The new rule disregards CDC recommendations. The health agency says that even those who appear healthy should quarantine when they have been exposed if they are not vaccinated, because even those without symptoms can spread the virus.
Daniel Benjamin, a researcher and pediatrics professor at Duke University, has been keeping close tabs on coronavirus rates in several school districts in North Carolina to study which mitigation measures work. He said it should not be up to the parent to choose.
"They're saying: 'OK, you don't believe in covid? You don't have to act like covid exists,' " Benjamin said. "That's the Florida policy right now."
He added that parents have historically not been very good at keeping sick children home, a problem that persisted even before the pandemic.
And he pointed to a CDC study of a classroom in Marin County, Calif., where a COVID-positive teacher infected half of her students when she took off her mask, as evidence that the delta variant is highly transmissible when masks are not worn.
Florida's new order also strengthened the state's ban on school mask mandates, dismantling a legal challenge mounted by five school districts that wanted to require students to wear masks. A judge dismissed the case after a state attorney argued that the districts were challenging an emergency rule that has been "repealed" and replaced by the one issued Wednesday, even though both orders banned mask mandates. If the districts want to continue to challenge the order, they must start over.
The mask ban faces other challenges, including from the U.S. Education Department, which has opened an investigation of whether the ban violates the rights of medically vulnerable students, who are at heightened risk of infection.
Carlee Simon, the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, expressed exasperation over the new rules. In a statement, she said the state should not give parents the freedom to pick which pandemic guidelines to follow, because it leaves those who trust the science feeling as if they cannot safely send their children to school.
"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," Simon said 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."
Simon said the school district, which encompasses Gainesville, intended to keep its masking and quarantine policies, in defiance of the change.
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The Washington Post's Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.