OKLAHOMA CITY — On Tuesday, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a policy that, with the right safety protocols, Oklahoma schools will be allowed to forgo mandatory two-week quarantines due to potential COVID-19 exposures.
Citing data from studies in other states, he said it’s the safe route to take.
“Refusing to offer in-person school is jeopardizing our kids’ education; it’s jeopardizing teachers’ careers; and it’s jeopardizing the future of the State of Oklahoma,” Stitt said in prepared remarks.
In a press conference where he was joined by Commissioner of Health Lance Frye, M.D., and Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, Stitt said the updated policy encourages and rewards mask wearing in schools. With proper COVID-19 protocols in place, to include masks, social distancing and good hygiene, students and teachers will be healthy, he said. This includes for their mental and educational health.
The governor cited concerns and data that have collided with growing numbers of students’ educational performance falling. These failures have a wide reach.
“These kids are struggling and it’s not their fault,” Stitt said. “They need to be in their classrooms, and they need to be with their teachers.”
“It’s jeopardizing kids’ education, teacher careers and the state of Oklahoma.”
Moving forward as of Tuesday, schools that enforce the use of masks will not have to quarantine students who were potentially exposed to COVID-19 unless they are showing symptoms.
Walters said that Oklahoma schools have been asking for this policy change. It goes back to there not being many numbers of positive cases from the hundreds of students who have under gone quarantine after exposure.
Frye said that over the past near-year, “very little spread of COVID-19” has been seen in state districts.
Another tool that is expected to further protect from harm by the virus is the arrival of vaccinations. Oklahoma teachers 65 and older will begin receiving vaccinations this week. Frye said when available, all teachers will have access, hopefully soon.
Oklahoma is No. 9 in the nation for vaccine distribution per capita, according to Stitt.
Frye said the new policy doesn’t include for after-school activities and athletics. If a student tests positive, they will remain at home in isolation. He said that mitigation allows opportunities. He said other states have moved in this direction. Data from Ohio, Missouri, Utah and North Carolina have shown it to be successful.
“It’s critical for our schools to open quickly and safely,” he said. “In this case, we need to balance the safety of our students … with other health factors.”
The policy is hoped to boost mental and educational health of state students, according to Walters. He said that there are cracks that some students fall through when it comes to online learning. He noted the importance of instructors being able to work with students as well as being able to note their development.
“We know young students struggle with virtual learning,” he said. “We have students falling through the cracks that need classroom support.”
Just one year away from the classroom could have devastating effects on young learners, Walters said. Being away from their peers is a large contributor to youth depression. For many students, their location could be the difference between receiving an education and being left out in the cold. For some rural students, a closed school building and poor internet access can leave them educationally disabled.
“I think it’s very important to make the distinction that there are some students who are very successful with the virtual option,” he said. “Some places, virtual isn’t a good option and in person isn’t an option. Some of those students have a difficult time with virtual learning.”
Stitt said that going back to school is the right thing to do. He said schools can achieve low-risk with in-class studies and, in the end, it gives families the option to do what’s best for their children.
“The data is clear, in-person school is what’s safe and what’s best,” he said. “Let the local jurisdiction make the decision.
Decisions about school should be made at the dinner table.”
A key measure for how students have been impacted will come at the end of the school year with assessment tests. Walters called it “very important.”
“We’ve got to know how well our kids are learning,” he said. “It’s essential to have that data to see where our students are.”
Democratic state representatives offered comments of appreciation for the mask mandates but questioned the policy change, overall.
“The governor, who recently enacted COVID precautions to close bars after 11 p.m., is now advocating for a large-scale return to in-person school across the state,” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “The only change instituted was suggesting that if mask mandates were in place, exposed children do not have to quarantine out of school. This didn’t work in Mustang Public Schools — why should we believe it would statewide? Oklahomans should understand that in the governor’s demand for schools to return to in-person learning, he offered no additional guidance or resources for Oklahoma public schools to do so safely.”
Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, said in a statement that she was happy to hear that Stitt agrees that a mask mandate works — for school populations.
“I encourage him to issue a statewide mask mandate as our schools are part of our communities,” she said. “Everyone — students, teachers, and staff — deserves a safe working environment.”
The Oklahoma Education Association(OEA) issued a statement that “the governor’s remarks are confusing.” By calling for no-quarantining when there is a mask policy but not demanding a strong mask policy, the OEA questioned the substance of Stitt’s policy.
The OEA accused the governor of “cherry-picking” data instead of “holistically tackling the pandemic.” Citing Stitt’s reference to leaving the decisions in the hands of local control, the OEA said that’s not the case when local decisions are made he disagrees with.
Stitt is accused of “scapegoating local school boards,” “pitting parents against teachers,” and of “avoiding responsibility.” The OEA said the myth of closed schools is denying the reality that many educators and support professionals have been battling the pandemic while teaching, feeding students, and keeping everyone safe.
“Burnout is real, and many have been sick,” according to the OEA statement. “Some have died. Don’t accuse teachers of not trying when they are in the fire right now.”
Written by Scott Rains: firstname.lastname@example.org.