Ray Carter | October 18, 2021

O’Connor sides with Edmond parents in quarantine dispute

Ray Carter

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor has sided with parents in a legal dispute over Edmond Public Schools’ policy of requiring healthy, unvaccinated students to be quarantined when similarly situated vaccinated students are not.

In an amicus curiae brief, commonly referred to as a “friend of the court” brief, O’Connor said he was concerned that Edmond school officials’ interpretation of Senate Bill 658, a state law that bans COVID-19 vaccine mandates as a condition of school attendance, was “designed to sidestep the clear intent expressed in the text.”

“The Edmond officials’ quarantine policy in particular appears to rely solely on COVID vaccination status,” the attorney general’s brief stated. “When students are exposed to COVID, a change in attendance occurs: only some students are permitted on campus to attend classes, while others are relegated to remote options. There is one, and only one, condition that determines which students may attend and which students may not after a COVID exposure: COVID vaccination status. This policy uses COVID vaccination status as a condition of attendance, in violation of state law.”

Senate Bill 658 states that a school district cannot require “a vaccination against Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a condition of admittance to or attendance of the school or institution” or require “a vaccine passport as a condition of admittance to or attendance of the school or institution.”

The Edmond lawsuit, filed by three sets of parents on Sept. 14, alleges the Edmond school district has violated students’ constitutionally protected due-process rights, violated students’ First Amendment rights to publicly assemble, and broken state law by imposing lengthy quarantines of healthy, unvaccinated children.

The Edmond policy requires that unvaccinated students who are believed to have been potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19 must “be physically excluded from school for a seven- or ten-day quarantine period,” the parents’ lawsuit stated, which they noted is not a policy recommended by the Oklahoma State Health Department.

In his amicus curiae brief, O’Connor warned that any ruling upholding the Edmond district’s quarantine policy “would permit Edmond officials to treat unvaccinated students as second-class citizens that can be relegated to permanent distance learning so long as the school deems that attendance for statistical purposes. Such a reading would construe a statute that prohibits attendance discrimination based on COVID vaccination status to allow attendance discrimination based on COVID vaccination status.”

Edmond school officials filed an objection, arguing the court should not allow O’Connor to file the brief because the attorney general “has no right to intervene in this action simply to express his unofficial opinion about the case.” The school district argued O’Connor’s brief would mean the state was intervening in “litigation between private parties,” although the school district is part of a state system of schools and its staff are government employees whose salaries are funded by taxpayer dollars.

In their objection to O’Connor’s brief, school officials stated that Edmond Public Schools “maintains that, although SB 658 unquestionably prohibits the denial of enrollment or attendance based purely on vaccination status, it does not address school districts’ authority to quarantine students who are exposed to COVID-19, vaccinated or not.”

The Edmond parents who filed the lawsuit disagreed and welcomed O’Connor’s brief. In their own separate brief, the parents stated that “school officials are not adhering to a duly enacted Oklahoma law. The Attorney General has a compelling interest in ensuring that the laws of Oklahoma are followed.”

“The notion that the Attorney General of the State is somehow forbidden from offering a ‘friend of the court’ brief to defend the duly enacted laws of the State passed by the duly elected legislature and signed into law by the duly elected Governor is an odd and seemingly a rather extreme position,” the parents’ brief stated. “Plaintiffs submit that the Court unquestionably has the discretion to read and consider any such offering and to assign it such weight that it deems appropriate.”

Judge Don Andrews sustained the attorney general’s motion for leave to file the brief, and he also granted Edmond schools time to file their official response to O’Connor’s brief.

Throughout the pandemic, data has shown that children are less susceptible to severe consequences from COVID infection than other age demographics, and children have not been a significant source of viral spread to family members or other citizens in the community.

Children younger than 12 are not eligible for COVID vaccination. In recent years there have been around 700,000 school-age children in Oklahoma public schools.

According to the most recent state Weekly Epidemiology and Surveillance Report, which provided data for Oct. 3 to 9, there are 320,490 Oklahomans between the ages of 12 and 17. Of that group, 114,295 have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and just 94,494 are considered fully vaccinated.

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals can contract and spread COVID-19.

The state epidemiology report showed that no Oklahomans younger than 12 have died of COVID and just five individuals between the ages of 12 and 17 have died while COVID-positive.

Edmond Public Schools continues to defend its quarantine policy in court even as another major Oklahoma City-area school district has abandoned its quarantine policy entirely.

The Mid-Del Public School District Board of Education recently voted to lift its mask mandates and the school ended the use of contact-tracing and mandatory quarantines for students believed exposed to a COVID-positive individual.

Mid-Del Superintendent Rick Cobb told Oklahoma City NBC-affiliate KFOR that the quarantine policy was “causing hundreds and hundreds of student quarantines, and what we’re still finding is that with the number of students we were quarantining, we have a lot of not-sick people missing school and that’s not helpful to anybody.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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