JoCo health officials mum on Olathe school quarantine

More than 200 students and teachers are in quarantine after an alleged COVID outbreak in the Olathe school district, but it’s unclear who issued the order or whether it’s an order or just a recommendation.  The purported quarantine order states it came from the “Olathe Public Schools” but a letter sent to Johnson County health officials by Sam MacRoberts, litigation director for Kansas Justice Institute, says “upon information and belief, a school official is claiming the county issued the Order.”

MacRoberts sent the letter to Public Health Officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster and the county Department of Health and Environment Director Dr. Samni Areola but says they have not responded or produced a quarantine order.

Those in isolation include two football teams from Olathe high schools, but MacRoberts says the district does not have the authority to force students into quarantine. KJI is owned by the Kansas Policy Institute, which also owns the Sentinel.

“Parents and students need clarity in these times, especially when faced with a purported quarantine order. The quarantine process is outlined in the statutes, which begs the question: are these official quarantine orders? Or are they merely recommendations? Families need immediate answers to these important questions,” he said.

At least 174 students are in isolation after 25 confirmed COVID cases. Parents of the students in close contact with those who tested positive received correspondence from the school district saying they need to quarantine, including limiting visitors to their homes, for 14 days. The correspondence also says, in bold, that a “negative COVID test does not shorten the quarantine period.”

The letter sent to county health officials says school districts cannot legally issue quarantine orders.

“A school employee is not statutorily authorized to order students to remain in their homes,” MacRoberts’ letter reads. “A health officer is not statutorily authorized to tell a school employee to order students to remain in their homes. These purported quarantine orders are, in our view, egregious oversteps requiring immediate and public correction.”

MacRoberts raised similar concerns when the Blue Valley School District demanded 100 students from Timber Creek Elementary quarantine. After receipt of a letter from MacRoberts, the district superintendent indicated she would not prevent students from returning to school. The district said in a statement to the Sentinel that the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment made the quarantine ‘decision’ but the letter from the county health department clearly said it was just a recommendation.

According to MacRoberts’ letter to the Olathe District, if the orders for its students to quarantine are legitimate and follow the process laid out in state statute, the orders should include the statutory language.

“If they are not bona fide quarantine orders, parents need to know the quarantines are merely recommendations,” MacRoberts wrote to county health officers.

MacRoberts says parents have a right to challenge a legitimate quarantine, writing, “Individuals isolated or quarantined may request “a hearing in district court contesting the isolation or quarantine[.]” KSA § 65-129c(d)(1).

“Courts “shall appoint counsel” to represent individuals who “are not otherwise represented by counsel.” KSA § 65-129c(d)(10). A challenge to the health officer’s order must take place within 72-hours (KSA § 65-129c(d)(3)) absent extraordinary circumstances. KSA § 65-129c(d)(4)(A). At the hearing’s conclusion, the judge must lift the quarantine order “unless the court determines that the isolation or quarantine order is necessary and reasonable to prevent or reduce the spread of the disease or outbreak believed to have been caused by the exposure to an infectious or contagious disease.” KSA § 65-129c(d)(4)(C)(i).”

His letter insists that local health officials explain who initiated the quarantine instructions and to clarify whether they are recommendations or an order.

“Parents deserve to know how, why and under what authority their children are purportedly under quarantine,” he wrote.

For its part, the Olathe School District issued a statement saying they are working closely with student athletes and the county health department to resume activities in a safe manner. Olathe South and Northwest will not play football games this week.