When a Johnson county student is thought to be exposed to someone with COVID, parents get quarantine letters from the school asking whether they opt for the 7-day, 10-day, or 14-day exclusion/quarantine. A letter from the Johnson County Health Department is attached, explaining the quarantine period options for students who have no symptoms.
Parents all across Johnson County tell the Sentinel that it’s not clear whether the quarantine letters are orders or recommendations. The county letter mentions ‘recommendations’ but doesn’t include the word ‘order.’ However, parents say emails from school districts, combined with the county letter saying when students may return, indicate an order. For example, an email from the De Soto district says, “Please let me know if you will be choosing the 14 day, the 10 day, or the 7 day exclusion/quarantine.”
Also, the CDC quarantine guidelines in the county letter specify a waiting period before getting a COVID test and a minimum 7-day quarantine. State law doesn’t include waiting periods or minimum quarantine periods.
County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara arranged a meeting between the Sentinel and Assistant County Manager Joe Connor to see if the county would amend its letter to resolve the confusion. But after consulting with school districts, Connor said the county wouldn’t budge.
“I wanted to let you know that based on the input from school superintendents we will not be making any changes to the student exclusion form letter that is used by schools as a part of their COVID-19 mitigation efforts.”
Quarantine letters are recommendations, not orders
Connor says the county letter is not an official order, just a recommendation, but offered no justification for not making that clear in the letter. O’Hara recommended adding a short statement at the beginning of the letter, saying. ‘this is a recommendation, not an order,’ and asked Connor if there was a reason to not do so.
Connor didn’t provide any reasons to not do so; he said the letter was developed with school officials, who didn’t believe there was any confusion over its content. He also said he thought the real issue was a communication gap with parents and school districts, and there was no reason for the county to get involved.
The Sentinel repeatedly made the point that parents were afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation against their children, but that concern was brushed aside.
Commissioner O’Hara wonders why the county and school officials won’t be straightforward with parents.
“Notices of exposure to COVID are being sent to parents of students and it is time for the school districts and JoCo Health department to ensure there is no confusion as to whether this is an order for their child or it is a recommendation. This is a very simple request: at the beginning of the notice put in bold letters, THIS IS A RECOMMENDATION NOT AN ORDER. I have to wonder why such a simple request has been ignored/denied.”
Quarantine letters specify minimum waiting and isolation periods that aren’t in state law
The county letter says, “students who do not have symptoms may receive a PCR test no sooner than day 5 following their exposure, which would be ___________. If the PCR test is negative AND no symptoms develop, your student should complete 7 days of quarantine and may return on __________. (emphasis added)
But K.S.A. 65-122 says, in part, “If the attending person licensed to practice medicine and surgery or local health officer finds upon examination that the person affected with a disease, suspected of being infectious or contagious is not suffering from an infectious or contagious disease, he or she may submit a certificate to this effect to the person in charge of the public, parochial, private school or licensed child care facility and such person shall be readmitted to school or to the child care facility.”
The Sentinel previously asked De Soto Assistant Superintendent Alvie Cater if parents can get their child back in school with a doctor’s note.
Cater said, “If an individual is symptomatic and excluded, we will gladly accept a doctor’s note with a non-infectious diagnosis and they may return to full participation.”
Connor declined to directly say whether there is a statutory basis for the variances to state law when asked, writing, “The guidelines are based on the CDC recommendations.”
School districts officials ignore questions about quarantine letters
The Sentinel wrote to the superintendents of each Johnson County district, asking them to respond to two questions:
- Why you do not want parents to be explicitly told that the county letter is just a recommendation?
- Why you do not want parents to know that state law does not require any waiting periods as outlined above?
- We also want to know if you disagree with Mr. Connor’s statement and if your district informs parents of their options under K.S.A. 65-122.
Only Shawnee Mission responded by the stated deadline, but the district didn’t answer any of the questions listed above. We told them their reply didn’t answer the questions and gave them a second chance, but again, their reply didn’t answer the questions.
Tips for parents
Sam MacRoberts, litigation director at Kansas Justice Institute, has been involved with alleged quarantine issues in the Blue Valley and Olathe school districts, getting administrators to acknowledge that notices to parents were recommendations, not actual quarantine orders. He strongly encourages parents to advocate for their children.
“It’s absolutely imperative parents understand who is issuing what – whether it’s an order or a recommendation, and of course, under what authority the person is purportedly acting. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to advocate for themselves and their kids.”
Additional tips for parents are in this Sentinel article.
The Sentinel and Kansas Justice Institute are owned by Kansas Policy Institute.