Tennessee schools just learning of ‘imminently necessary’ COVID isolation guidelines state signed Dec. 22

Local Coronavirus Coverage

An emergency order from the Tennessee Department of Health gives the state’s school systems autonomy to make quarantine decisions again — something removed by a state law that went into effect Nov. 12 — but leaders say they remain unclear about details.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) issued new rules about COVID-19 quarantine and isolation Dec. 22, six weeks after a new COVID law went into effect that threw school systems and others into confusion — but many school systems just learned about the new rule this week.

New guidelines went live as students were about to get out for a two-week Christmas break with the signing of an emergency rule written by the TDH.

In its “statement of necessity” for implementing an emergency rule, TDH wrote that school systems “have requested and need prompt guidance about how to respond to COVID-19 positive cases among students, faculty and staff” in the wake of the new law.

The need for that guidance arose from a key clause in that law stating that “(T)he commissioner of health has the sole authority to determine quarantine guidelines…”

That law added that “A local health entity or official, mayor, governmental entity, or school does not have the authority to quarantine a person or private business for purposes of COVID-19.”

Washington County and other systems have been essentially flying blind with regard to COVID isolation and quarantine since Nov. 12. That’s when Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a COVID omnibus bill the state legislature passed in special session.

Even though they returned to classes last week with the Omicron variant case surge spiking, though, some school systems weren’t aware of the update until this week.

“Quite honestly it was very recently as far as the details of that,” Washington County Superintendent Jerry Boyd said.

At first, school leaders didn’t appear to expect such a wait given the uncertainty that reigned without some clarification.

Johnson County Superintendent Mischelle Simcox told board members Nov. 11 she expected TDH Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey to clarify new rules quickly. After several weeks of silence from TDH, News Channel 11 was told that process had to follow normal administrative rulemaking procedures — something that can take months.

Boyd said school leaders craved such guidance. Between mid-November and Christmas break, some took one approach to quarantine and isolation, others took different ones.

The conservative approach from looking at the new law was that they had no authority to quarantine exposed students or teachers or even to mandate isolation for those who tested positive for COVID.

“So that we’re consistent we want to be aligned within our community but we also feel like it’s important to be aligned across the state,” Boyd said.

It’s still a bit fuzzy

As school systems grapple with rising case numbers and the need for workarounds to resolve staffing issues, Boyd said the new rules still don’t make things perfectly clear for him.

One thing they do say is that “(N)othing in this rule shall be construed to prohibit local health officials and schools from making quarantining decisions as they relate to schools as defined by the Tennessee Code in Title 14.

“We welcome that responsibility,” Boyd said. “We’re not going to shy away from it but we want clarity so we’re consistent within our region and certainly across the state of Tennessee.”

Indeed, whether the local autonomy is permanent or not isn’t necessarily clear. The statement of necessity in the rule’s preface refers to a judge’s injunction against the section of the law prohibiting officials or schools from the authority to quarantine for school purposes.

“We are looking for that clear guidance,” Boyd said. “I think it’s still somewhat ambiguous. We definitely have the ability and certainly appreciate the opportunity to make decisions locally but as I said we want to be consistent within the region and across the state and sometimes that vagueness does pose a challenge.”

“I believe that kind of detail probably will be provided to us but right now there’s still some lack of clarity about exactly what the details are about the decisions our boards and local school system administrators can make.”

The guidelines themselves are fairly succinct about quarantine of people, including outside the school setting.

TDH noted itself that in general the emergency rules were “imminently necessary to protect public health and resolve ongoing confusion about how to respond to COVID-19 positive cases.”

In Section 2, the emergency rule states anyone who’s tested positive for COVID “must immediately isolate following the receipt of a positive antigen … PCR or other FDA approved or authorized test.”

The rule still refers to a 10-day isolation from the date of initial symptom onset, but an update to that sent out by TDH aligns with the new CDC guidance calling for shorter isolation periods.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories

Don't Miss

More Don't Miss