Students who received a quarantine notice from the Olathe school district may be able to return to the classroom, despite not isolating for a full 14 days.  That’s the upshot of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s response to a letter from Kansas Justice Institute Litigation Director Sam MacRoberts, questioning the origin of the alleged quarantine. (Kansas Policy Institute owns KJI and the Sentinel.)

As the Sentinel reported yesterday, the Olathe school district sent quarantine notification letters to more than 200 students, staff, and teachers on Oct. 9. The district’s letter told parents of 174 students that their children needed to quarantine in their homes for 14 days including disallowing visitors inside the home.

The Johnson County health department officials said the communication from the district to parents was a “recommendation” sent by the school on behalf of JCDHE.

“The notification is not a quarantine order. The word ‘order’ does not appear in the document,” wrote  Johnson County Director of Health and Environment Dr. Sanmi Areola and Dr. Joseph LeMaster, the local health officer in a letter to the Kansas Justice Institute. “…This recommendation is made to contain the spread and not expose additional students, teachers, staff, and parents to COVID-19.”

MacRoberts said he appreciates the county’s response.

“In some ways, it helps clarify the issues. Moving forward, it’s absolutely imperative parents understand whether their children are under a bona fide quarantine order or just a quarantine recommendation,” he said. “Any notice issued by schools should state clearly and unequivocally who in particular issued the recommendation, that it is merely a recommendation, and be prepared to quickly respond to questions from parents about the process.

JCDHE officials said they collaborate with schools to communicate quarantine recommendations when individuals may have been exposed to COVID-19 through school activities.

“Our overarching goal is to keep students in schools, which means that we must prevent the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” Areola and LeMaster wrote in their letter to KJI. “We do this in partnership with our Johnson County school districts by taking prompt and timely actions that limit the number of students, staff and teachers who are exposed. Quarantine recommendations made by DHE are the appropriate mitigation action to contain the spread and to ensure it does not become wider.”

KSDE: schools can’t quarantine asymptomatic kids

MacRoberts’ letter to county health officials said, “The statutes empower a local health officer or the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health to issue quarantine orders under certain, limited, circumstances. The statutes do not expressly or implicitly authorize school districts or school employees to issue such Orders, or expressly or implicitly authorize a local health officer to delegate this power to a school employee.”

Schools can send a sick child home but state and local guidelines indicate they should not prevent children from attending with a generic explanation of ‘being in close proximity’ to someone who tested positive.  In fact, a March 12 news release from the Kansas Department of Education says “Neither KSDE nor schools have the authority to quarantine anyone who isn’t exhibiting any signs of illness.”

The Johnson County health department guidelines call for masks to be worn in school and say, “A six-foot distance between people should be maintained as much as possible. If six feet cannot be achieved, a three-foot distance should be maintained. Distancing is particularly important when people will be in proximity of one another for a period of more than 10 minutes, when mixing between static groups, and/or when they are participating in activities that may result in respiratory droplets traveling further than normal (e.g., singing, exercising).”

This marks the second time MacRoberts has sounded the alarm about school districts sending quarantine notifications. Last month, the Blue Valley School District demanded more than 100 Timber Creek Elementary students quarantine. After receiving a letter from MacRoberts questioning their legal authority to do so, the district superintendent indicated she would not prevent students from returning to schools.

This story will be updated if and when the Olathe school district responds to a request for comment.

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