Hamilton County Schools says it can't enforce COVID-19 quarantines of individuals as a result of new state laws

Staff file Photo by Robin Rudd / Orchard Knob Middle School Sixth Grade Assistant Principal Travis Miller, right, directs students. Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school year under a Hamilton County Schools system-wide mask mandate on August 12 because of the surge in the delta variant of COVID-19.
Staff file Photo by Robin Rudd / Orchard Knob Middle School Sixth Grade Assistant Principal Travis Miller, right, directs students. Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school year under a Hamilton County Schools system-wide mask mandate on August 12 because of the surge in the delta variant of COVID-19.

Hamilton County Schools and other public school districts in Tennessee can no longer stop students who are exposed to or who test positive for COVID-19 from attending school based on their diagnosis alone, according to the district's interpretation of a new state law.

The school district announced its policy change in a news release last week, which stated: "For purposes of COVID-19, a public school district may no longer enforce an individual quarantine at any point. This authority will be left solely to the discretion of the [state] commissioner of health," Dr. Lisa Piercey.

Sabrina Novak, Hamilton County Health Department administrator, said in an email that "the process [to quarantine or isolate for COVID-19] is still the same, but the ability to enforce it has been changed, taking it from the local level to the state level. Isolation and quarantine are now recommendations rather than requirements."

In public health,"isolation" refers to the practice of separating sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick. "Quarantine" is the practice of separating and restricting the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.

Although public schools and the county health department can't exclude students specifically due to COVID-19, Novak said "they can continue existing policies to keep symptomatic ill children out of school."

That means children who show symptoms such as fever, runny nose or coughing can be forced to stay home. However, a person with COVID-19 is considered infectious starting two days before they develop symptoms or test positive for the disease, and some people - particularly those who are younger - may only display mild symptoms or none at all, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The shifting of quarantine authority is one of several changes in new laws signed by Gov. Bill Lee on Nov. 12 stripping localities of their power to implement measures to control the coronavirus.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor decries state stripping of local public health powers)

When asked whether Piercey has acted on her authority to quarantine students since the law went into effect, Tennessee Department of Health spokesperson Sarah Tanksley said in an email that she "cannot comment as portions of this legislation is pending litigation."

Eight Tennessee students with disabilities that place them at high risk for negative COVID-19 effects and their parents are suing the Lee administration over the laws, called Tennessee's COVID Omnibus Act, claiming that the restrictions on public health measures prevent the students from safely attending school. The law also prohibits public schools from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccines and mandating facial coverings unless COVID-19 cases reach a dire level that's only occurred twice throughout the pandemic.

Under the new law, a parent or guardian may submit a request for a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"If the accommodation is granted, the school is required to place the person in an in-person educational setting with other individuals wearing a face mask," according to last week's news release from Hamilton County Schools.

Jeff Strand, coordinator of government affairs for the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said the Americans with Disabilities Act requires schools make "reasonable modifications" to ensure individuals with disabilities have equal access to education. Face masks are a reasonable modification in that they're easy to use, cost effective and scientifically proven to reduce COVID-19 spread, he said.

(READ MORE: Tennessee governor's aide warned new COVID law was illegal)

"We're just concerned that the way that this is written, it'll end up just segregating kids with disabilities," Strand said, adding that there are more than 1.6 million Tennesseans who have some kind of disability, including schoolchildren with cancer, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome and other disabilities that could make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

"Nobody wants to have these [COVID-19 safety measures] in place forever, but what [such measures are] really doing is they're ensuring the freedom of some of Tennessee's most vulnerable folks, kids, to be able to go to school," he said.

Even though they can't be enforced, Novak said the health department is still working with the school district by providing evidence-based recommendations to prevent COVID-19.

The district said in the news release that it will continue to contact trace when information is available and appropriate and will recommend quarantine and isolation for individuals identified as close contacts or that report a confirmed positive case of COVID-19.

School officials are encouraging families and staff to communicate with their school and the district's response team when an individual tests positive for COVID-19, because that will allow the response team to contact trace and inform families of any potential exposure.

"As we navigate these changes imposed by the state legislature regarding our COVID-19 response, we will maintain our focus on the education and overall well-being of our students," Nakia Towns, Hamilton County Schools interim superintendent, said in the news release. "The updates included in the Omnibus Bill shift all decision-making authority away from local leaders. If anyone wants to express their opinion or make recommendations for future policy changes, they should contact our elected and appointed leaders at the state level."

The new legislation passed in a special legislative session convened for the purpose of reining in public health measures attempting to stop the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 16,860 Tennesseans.

The law limits the ability of governments to impose mask mandates and businesses to impose vaccine mandates. It also gives the state more power in appointing county health officials.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.