'It has become a health facility': Dispute over Shawnee Heights quarantines raises policy questions statewide
A legal dispute making its way through Shawnee County District Court could undercut the current quarantine structure used by scores of schools and local health departments across the state, with a Topeka-area parent arguing the process is flawed.
What began as Shawnee Heights Unified School District 450 parent Jill Foster-Koch challenging the quarantine orders of her two daughters could have far greater implications.
Embedded in the challenge, filed last month, is an argument that school districts in the county are effectively serving as an extension of the county health department in ordering quarantines, something Foster-Koch's lawyers argue state law doesn't allow.
It is likely the first time these broader questions have been raised in Kansas and could have implications for how schools handle COVID-19 if it succeeds.
Quarantines are required after an individual is believed to be a close contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Schools will typically handle their own contact tracing and case investigation, as health officials believe they are best positioned to handle the work given their access to students and staff and knowledge of who might have been exposed.
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 in fact 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 is vaccinated, which would have let them get out of quarantining.
Foster-Koch's testimony at a hearing last week was critical of the school's handling of the quarantine situation as well, arguing school officials changed the date one of her children was exposed to COVID-19 in an effort to allow them to dance at a football game.
She also contests whether they were, in fact, exposed to the virus, arguing they weren't displaying symptoms. The school district and health officials dispute this, arguing they meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for being considered a close contact.
Challenge asks if schools can act as extensions of local health departments
But the dispute largely takes aim at the structure of the quarantine system itself.
Shawnee Heights, like many larger districts, passes on a form order from the Shawnee County Health Department that can be adjusted with the dates of a particular case and passed onto the parent.
Foster-Koch objected to this process, arguing there was no way county health officials knew the specific details of her daughters' cases and thus weren't in a position to mandate they quarantine, an order which can be enforced by police if need be.
Her attorneys say there has been no formal process of deputizing school nurses or administrators to effectively serve as an extension of the health department.
"It is not a school anymore, it has become a health facility," Foster-Koch said in testimony last week. "I just want my kids to go to school and learn and not have to deal with this."
County health officers defend COVID-19 quarantine procedures
Shawnee County Health Officer Erin Locke said it is true her office leaves much of the work in schools up to the districts themselves and notes there is no way for her to contact trace every case. But she added the department is in frequent contact with schools and "we work quite well together."
She testified in court Thursday that the quarantine orders were properly issued in this case.
"The schools are mandated reporters," Locke said. "We take the information they give to us."
Broad questions about the quarantine process in schools largely haven't been raised in court, even as challenges to county and school district mask policies have been routinely filed in the last year.
Throughout the pandemic, county health officers have been frequently dispatched to court to argue a specific quarantine order is legal, said Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments. He argued there was nothing in statute preventing counties from doing what Shawnee County did.
He noted many counties have moved away from Shawnee County's protocols and will instead recommend an individual quarantine, hoping the person will comply and preventing a potential legal battle.
"Normally, you're quarantining a few people over measles or something," Kriesel said. "It's not a big deal. But with this volume, it just got to be too difficult."
The dispute is filed under state statute allowing individuals to challenge the legality of quarantine orders in court. Lawyers representing Shawnee County have pushed for the case to be dismissed, as both quarantine orders implicated in the case have expired.
But even if the case is thrown out, the issue may not go away. Josh Ney, a lawyer whose firm has filed a series of lawsuits challenging mask mandates in Johnson and Morris County, joined the case earlier this month and said in court he will look at filing another civil lawsuit if the current case is dismissed.
A ruling on the matter is expected in December.
The story has been updated to clarify the matter is not a formal lawsuit but a challenge to the individual quarantines filed under the state's quarantine statute.
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.