A district court judge ruled the Shawnee County Health Department overstepped its authority in issuing two quarantine orders for area students last year, a decision which could have implications for the COVID-19 protocols in schools at a county and state level.
In an opinion issued late Monday, Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson said the county’s practice of sending form quarantine orders rubber-stamped by the local health officer to students suspected of having COVID-19 ran afoul of state statute.
In September, Shawnee Heights Unified School District 450 parent Jill Foster-Koch challenged quarantine orders issued to her two daughters, arguing school districts in the county were improperly serving as an extension of the county health department in ordering quarantines.
Quarantines are required after an individual is believed to be a close contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Schools have traditionally handled their own contact tracing and case investigation, though this has waned as virus case counts have skyrocketed in recent weeks.
In Foster-Koch’s case, her middle school daughter was exposed during a class and was forced to quarantine as she was exempted from wearing a mask at school. The student attempted to return to school before the quarantine order expired, arguing she wasn’t sick, and was sent home.
Then, Foster-Koch’s high school daughter was hit days later with a quarantine order after an off-campus gathering of the dance team. Neither student was vaccinated, which would have let them get out of quarantining.
She argued school officials — and the county health department — had no way of knowing her daughters had been exposed.
“It is not a school anymore. It has become a health facility,” Foster-Koch said in testimony during a hearing in September. “I just want my kids to go to school and learn and not have to deal with this.”
Shawnee County Health Officer Erin Locke said the quarantine orders, which came from the health department and bore a facsimile of her signature, were properly issued because they used information provided by mandated reporters at the school.
Judge rules COVID quarantine case raises ‘issues of public importance’
But Watson ruled Locke did not determine a quarantine was “medically necessary and reasonable to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and she did not issue the orders.”
School officials on their own do not have the medical training or statutory authority to effectively issue such an order, she said.
“The law simply does not allow Dr. Locke to delegate to school officials her statutory power and authority to impose quarantine orders in this situation,” Watson wrote in her opinion.
While the practice was understandable given the “paucity of resources caused by a global pandemic” the quarantine orders were “nonetheless void,” Watson said.
Lawyers representing Shawnee County had pushed to dismiss the case, arguing it was moot because the quarantine orders had expired some time ago.
But Watson said the case raised issues that remain likely to persist, noting other, similar challenges had been filed in district court in recent months.
“Koch’s challenges raise issues of public importance because the quarantine orders not only restrict or prevent the student’s attendance at school, but purport to confine the student to her home for a certain period of time under penalty of law,” Watson wrote.
Shawnee County Counselor James Crowl said it was unclear if the county would appeal the decision, as they were waiting on the rulings in the other two cases, both out of Seaman Unified School District.
“We’re going to read this ruling, see when we get the other rulings and go from there,” Crowl said.
Craig Barnes, a spokesperson for the Shawnee County Health Department, said officials were reviewing the ruling and its potential impact on policies.
“We have yet to be able to fully review the ruling from Judge Watson and are in communication with the County’s legal team to discuss next steps and how this may affect our current operations,” Barnes said in an ema
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 443-979-6100.