A Florida Department of Health emergency rule issued late Friday has upended locally innovative plans by Flagler County schools and the Flagler Health Department to provide rapid-covid testing to faculty, school employees and students, plans that had been ready to kick off Monday.
The emergency rule is contradictory: while it emphasizes the importance of in-person schooling and parents’ rights to send their children to school unmasked, it also sets out a rigid requirement that students and staffers who have been defined as “close contacts” of covid infections must quarantine for at least four days, and possibly up to six days. The rule appears to pre-empt Flagler’s plans to enact rapid testing, which was intended to prevent a majority of those deemed to have been close contacts of infected people from having to miss school or work, as long as their rapid test showed them to be negative.
Flagler Health Department officials are meeting on Monday to determine their next course of action. But for now, the rapid-testing option is on hold. The new state rule is only the latest in a series of federal and state rules and guidances that have sent conflicting messages, especially in Florida, where Gov. DeSantis has been hostile to mask-wearing and pro-active, preventive safety measures intended to combat the covid pandemic. The Health Department’s rule was issued the same day the state Board of Education issued an emergency rule of its own requiring local school districts to ensure that students are not “harassed” over their masking choices, are given the right to “opt out” of any guidance to wear masks, and are given the opportunity to opt for private-school vouchers, at public expense, to transfer to private schools if they so wish.
The upending of Flagler County’s rapid testing protocol for school district employees and students is a more immediately consequential development, and a potential reversal of what had been one of the more heartening counter-measures against potentials for excessive quarantines and potentially unnecessary quarantines.
For much of the latter part of the summer, Flagler County Health Department Chief Bob Snyder lobbied the Flagler County school district administration to adopt a rapid-testing covid protocol that would enable teachers, staffers and students to avoid quarantines as long as they tested negative over a 10-day period. The whole idea was in recognition of the importance of in-person schooling, which the district and the department agree on, and thus to minimize the need for any absences, or any added burdens on parents and guardians who would have to care for quarantined children.
The health department wanted to make the rapid testing available in every school, as it already is in Flagler County’s eight private schools–and as it already is in innumerable college and university campuses and other school districts across the country.
Flagler Schools at first refused. But the district left the door open for an out-of-school option. And last week, it agreed to embrace that option. Snyder was jubilant. He spent the last two weeks expanding his staff in anticipation, and preparing to offer, starting Monday, what he called the “Test to Stay” school testing option. He set up the second floor of the airport annex (the three-story building at the county airport), as an afterschool testing site, and even outlined the schedule to FlaglerLive.
It was essential that the preparations be completed by the time school resumes on Tuesday (Aug. 9), as local health and school officials are nervously watching the consequences of reopening schools as normal in the midst of the pandemic’s fourth and most serious surge of local cases (Flagler recorded 1,300 cases in the last two weeks, not including today’s 109 additional cases).
But late this afternoon, when the local Department of Health issued its schedule for next week’s testing and vaccination schedule, there was this note: “Through its soon-to-be-announced “Test to Stay” school testing option, the health department will also offer testing and vaccinations for students, faculty and staff seven days a week. Details will be shared with the school community on Monday, August 9.”
The to-page emergency rule, which appears in full below, is prefaced by language local districts and employees have been wanting to hear for weeks: “Because a recent increase in COVID-19 infections, largely due to the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant, coincides with the imminent start of the school year, it is imperative that state health and education authorities provide emergency guidance to school districts concerning the governance of COVID-19 protocols in schools.”
The rule then echoes the Legislature’s recently passed “Parents Bill of Rights” reasserting parental control of children while stressing that “it is necessary to immediately promulgate a rule regarding COVID-19 safety protocols that protects parents’ rights and to allow for in-person education for their children. Removing children from school poses a threat to developmental upbringing and should not occur absent a heightened showing of illness or risk of illness to other students.”
The emergency rule’s wording underlines the importance of in-person learning–which has framed the Flagler school district’s approach to the new school year despite the surge in covid cases–and to ensure against unnecessary absences from school. That would suggest that rapid-testing protocols would be exactly in line with the rule’s intent.
Inexplicably, they are not.
The rule restates basic safety measures such as hand-washing, cleaning of high-touch areas, the need for students to stay home if they are sick, and the option for students to wear mask (they “may” wear masks: “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,” a clause that appears to leave the way open for school districts to enact mask-wearing rules, as long as an opt-out provision is included).
The rule’s protocols for people experiencing symptoms appears to be consistent with rapid testing. Those may return to school with a negative test or clearance from a doctor. But
the rule then gets to the protocols for Covid exposure, which is what rapid testing was intended to address, and which directly contradict the rules’ earlier wording about maximizing in-person learning: while it is obvious that those testing positive as a result would have to quarantine for 10 days or until clearance from a doctor and tests, “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:
“(a) 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
(b) The student is asymptomatic and seven days have passed since the date of last exposure to the COVID-19 positive individual.”
Those are the sections that up-ended Flagler’s plans. Absent some form of documented waiver from the state Health Department, they leave appear to leave little room for circumventing the rule and allowing a teacher or student to take a rapid test instead, and return to school immediately if the rapid test is negative.
As Snyder set it out to the district, those participating in the rapid-test protocol would have had to agree to do so for a 10-day period, getting tested every other day, with the option of getting tested every day if they so chose, by buying over-the-counter testing kits and being honest to public health officials about the home results.
But all of that is now in limbo. The rule does leave the door open for testing to enable a return to school after four days, but it’s not clear if rapid testing would be allowed in that case, as opposed to PCR testing, which takes longer to yield results. Alternately, the rule clears the way for a student or staffer to return to school after seven days, rather than 10, in case of an absence of symptoms.
The rule is not without its rationale: the delta variant of covid is extremely infectious. Even children, even those who have been vaccinated, are potential carriers of a heavy viral load. So by requiring a minimum of four days of quarantine for those who have been exposed, before a test, and since research has shown that it takes up to four days for a viral load to be clearly apparent, the four-day buffer is a form of insurance against asymptomatic individuals unknowingly spreading the virus–a window of time that rapid testing does not necessarily account for.
The rule appears below.