Florida judge rules on masks, quarantine requirements in schools

The court ruled the Department of Health did not overstep its authority when it passed its emergency rule for school districts concerning masks and quarantines.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida judge dismissed a challenge by several school boards to the emergency rule concerning mask mandates and quarantine requirements Friday.

The sections of the emergency rule challenged by the districts are:

  1. Districts must allow parents or guardians to opt the children out of any mask requirements at schools
  2. Districts cannot quarantine children who have been exposed to COVID-19 but are not showing symptoms

The school boards named in the petition are Alachua County, Broward County, Duval County, Leon County, Miami-Dade and Orange County. They maintain the Department of Health did not have the authority and did not go through the proper procedures to make the emergency rule. The boards also say the rule is unsafe for children.

The DOH, however, responded that forced quarantines are harmful to students. The DOH said it did not find any benefit to mask mandates when preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

“This emergency rule is necessary 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,” the Department of Health says in its response to the petition.

The State of Florida Division of Administrative Hearings dismissed the school boards’ petition.

The court ruled the Department of Health did have the authority to make and enforce the Emergency Rule and followed the proper procedures when making it. The court ruled the emergency rule was not vague.

Additionally, the court found the rule was not “unsafe for children.” According to the ruling:

“As to whether the Emergency Rule Opt-Out provisions make it more likely that children will spread COVID-19 to others, that too was unproven. The Emergency Rule requires sick children to stay home. It is extremely rare for asymptomatic people to spread COVID-19 and children are otherwise inefficient transmitters of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As such, it is axiomatic that forcing asymptomatic children to wear masks in schools provides no significant barrier to the spread of COVID-19. “

The districts had two doctors testify in support of masks in schools.

Pediatrician Dr. Lisa Gwynn said while children are less at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 than older adults, she would not sign any opt-out waiver for any children.

Additionally, Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist, testified “masks are a highly effective way of reducing transmission from a respiratory virus, and particularly one that is spread primarily by aerosol, as is the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

However, the court says their testimony did not show enough evidence that mask requirements prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Florida schools.

Instead, the court favored the testimony of Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya, a searcher who is both a Ph.D. and M.D. in economics. He is a professor of Health Policy at the Stanford School of Medicine. He cited a study that he said, “found no statistically significant differences” in districts with no mask requirements, a mask requirement for staff only and a full mask requirement. Additionally, Dr. Bhattacharya testified, “children already have a 0.0% COVID-19 case fatality rate and are very unlikely to suffer serious COVID-19 side effects if they are infected.”

On Oct. 30, a court ordered Duval County and Alachua County schools must comply with the emergency rule.

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