ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida parents can now decide if their children should quarantine or stay in school after exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, according to an emergency rule the state’s new surgeon general signed Wednesday, the day after he was tapped for the job.
The new rule wipes out a previous one that required students to quarantine off-campus at least four days after exposure to someone with the virus. It does not alter Florida’s ban against mask mandates, however, as it reiterates the previous order’s requirement that parents be able to opt-out their children from wearing face coverings.
The new rule also prompted an administrative law judge Wednesday to dismiss the challenge to the state’s mask mandate ban brought by several school districts.
The state requested the dismissal, arguing the challenge was based on a rule that is now moot. Judge Brian Newman agreed, saying there was “no wiggle room whatsoever” to allow a challenge based on a repealed rule to proceed.
The Orange, Alachua, Broward and Miami-Dade school districts all adopted mask mandates in defiance of state rules, saying they were needed to protect the health of students and staff during the pandemic and arguing the state rule was “inconsistent,” “arbitrary” and adopted in ways that did not follow state law.
The new rule puts quarantine decisions in the hands of parents who can decide if their child goes to class and participates in school activities, as long as the child is asymptomatic. The old rule required at least a four-day quarantine followed by a negative COVID-19 test or a seven-day quarantine without a test before an asymptomatic child could return to campus.
The new rule was issued “in light of the unnecessary exclusion of healthy students from in-person learning and the urgent need to provide updated COVID-19 guidance to school districts,” read the order signed by Dr. Joseph Lapado, hired Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Lapado has written essays questioning the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and the effectiveness of face masks. He said Tuesday he opposed COVID-related mandates and lockdowns and wanted people to make their own choices about health care.
“Florida will completely reject fear,” he told reporters Tuesday after his appointment was announced in Tallahassee.
Lapado’s rule fits with DeSantis and other Republican leaders’ focus on parental rights but likely will be another flashpoint in the ongoing debate about how public schools should handle COVID cases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that unvaccinated students quarantine for 14 days after exposure.
Even with Florida requiring more limited quarantines, thousands of students in Central Florida and across the state have missed school in the first month of classes because of COVID-19 exposure, as the delta variant fueled a surge of new cases.
Wednesday, Orange County Public Schools reported 1,139 students were quarantined.