November 24, 2020
Dear District and School Leaders,
It has come to the attention of the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Oklahoma State Department of Education that some school districts are considering a modification to their COVID-19 plans to allow a student who has been exposed to COVID-19 to attend school on campus, which is outside the guidance from OSDH regarding quarantine. Upon a review of these proposals, however, we have determined these policies would be contrary to established laws, regulations and guidelines on mitigating the spread and exposure of children and adults to this disease.
This correspondence is being provided to ensure there is no further confusion, misunderstanding or known disregard of requirements relating to the control and prevention of COVID-19. These requirements can be categorized as:
- imposition of quarantine or isolation requirements upon individuals suspected or confirmed to be incubating a communicable disease; and
- the duty to prohibit an individual having a communicable disease from attending school.
Isolation and quarantine
The OSDH, through the State Commissioner of Health, is empowered by 63 O.S. § 1-504 to impose quarantine or isolation upon any individual suspected or confirmed to be incubating a communicable disease that is harmful to the public. The OSDH, or local public health official, will determine the terms and conditions of the quarantine or isolation, including, but not limited to, the length of the quarantine or isolation period, with consideration made to the incubation period of the communicable disease. To be clear, and as has been previously communicated to individuals and school leaders, school districts are not the authority for making determinations regarding quarantine and/or isolation. If OSDH recommends or advises a quarantine or isolation period for any individual, and has reasonable belief that the individual is for any reason not complying with the recommendation, OSDH can issue a quarantine or isolation order upon the individual. Id. This includes any noncompliance due to a conflicting recommendation from a non-OSDH physician (i.e., a primary care physician). Any violation of the terms and conditions of an order for quarantine or isolation is a violation of law. An individual that violates an order may be subject to detainment by law enforcement for the period of quarantine or isolation and/or criminal penalties including the conviction of a misdemeanor and/or a fine. Id.
Attendance of individuals with a communicable disease
Oklahoma law prohibits an individual having a communicable disease from attending a public or private school. See 63 O.S. § 1-507. Consistent with this, the law places a duty on families and school officials to isolate and exclude individuals from coming to school until the expiration of the period of isolation or quarantine, or until permission has been granted by the public health official. Id. In this context, a local health official is not the equivalent of a school board of education. Rather, the statutory use of public health official refers to the State Commissioner of Health or local health department that acts principally to protect or preserve the health of the public. As such, if families and/or school officials have knowledge of their student having tested positive for COVID-19, the family and school must prohibit the individual from coming to school until the end of the quarantine or isolation period, as determined by the public official and not the District’s board of education.
Beyond the legal duty to adhere to the aforementioned requirements, we urge school districts to consider liability protections that are provided for those who follow applicable guidance for COVID-19. Senate Bill 1946, an outcome of the 2020 legislative session, provides immunity for certain individual claims in state court relating to alleged exposure to COVID-19. To be eligible for this defense, a business or individual must have been following applicable state or federal guidance for COVID-19 at the time of the alleged exposure. Without ambiguity, applicable guidance includes those from OSDH relating to quarantine of those who have been exposed to COVID-19. Further, the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act (GTCA) also affords protections to school districts that may face a claim relating to alleged or potential exposure to COVID-19.
School districts should note that any efforts by individuals, including school officials, to not follow the recommendations and requirements of public health officials may subject their school district and individual actors to future action and liability. In light of this information, we respectfully request adherence to the established policies set forth by the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Oklahoma State Department of Education for the control and mitigation of COVID-19.
We understand this is a challenging time for Oklahoma schools. We are committed to working with you to keep Oklahoma’s education system strong, while keeping Oklahoma’s children and educators safe. Should you have any questions or wish to further discuss these matters, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Stat Superintendent of Public Instruction
Dr. Lance Frye
Commissioner, Oklahoma State Department of Health