A policy approved Monday by the Lawton Board of Education sets a mask requirement for students and adults in the district.
The decision, made with no discussion by the board, is among the actions being taken by the district as Lawton Public Schools edges closer to the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Contacts begin this week with parents/guardians about how they want their children to return to school — virtually or a modified in-person attendance — and among the decisions being finalized is one centering on masks.
Earlier this summer, Superintendent Kevin Hime said parents and LPS staff were split 50-50 on whether to require the masks in school settings. Monday, Hime said a recent survey of parents indicated 89 percent would accept a mask mandate, adding there really wasn’t a common denominator about why. But, he said polling indicated a comfortable majority of parents are on board.
The policy for students depends on the grade level. Students in pre-kindergarten through grade three will wear masks only when they are in hallways and being transported by school vehicle. For students in grades four through 12, the policy is to wear masks while being transported by school vehicles; in all hallways, public spaces and common areas of the school district; and in classrooms where social distancing is not possible.
In addition, the policy requires all LPS staff members to wear a face mask while on school premises, to include office spaces where multiple people are present if social distancing is not possible, and in public and common space areas. Hime said last week that the district’s office personnel already were working under a directive to wear masks.
The policy specifies masks “are supplement to, not a substitute for, other preventive measures,” adding a layer of protection on top of social distancing and other common-sense protections like frequent hand washing, the use of hand sanitizer, and staying home when sick. Exceptions will be decided on a case-by-case basis. And, the policy specifies masks should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops, and include multiple layers of fabric.
Hime, in response to a parent question, said in July that decisions on markings and patterns that may be on a mask will be evaluated under a specific school’s dress code. Disposable masks will be available at all schools so no one is sent home because their mask is inappropriate, Hime said.
Hime has conceded the issue of mandating masks is a difficult one, especially for younger students. While noting the decision is easier for secondary students — being “a senior in high school pretty much means you will have a mask” — younger students are more difficult for a variety of reasons, including the fact that some skills need to be taught with face-to-face interaction, he said.
Hime said that is why the mandate would apply to the district’s youngest students only when they are outside a classroom setting, which does not happen as often as it does for older students.
Monday, Hime said district officials aren’t certain how long the policy will remain place, noting administrators can remove the policy when the pandemic is over, but the school board also has the authority to remove the policy when it wants.
Hime said last week that the district hasn’t decided on face shields because administrators still are analyzing data.
“We’re looking for things that protect you from me,” he said, explaining health care experts say a shield will protect the person wearing it, but will not protect others from him/her.
LPS’ decision is a locally-based one, something four of the seven members of the State Board of Education said they wanted when they rejected a proposal last week to require all Oklahoma school districts to mandate masks. The proposal instead set into place recommends a color-coded chart based on one already being used by the State Department of Health to highlight counties where COVID-19 levels are high: the higher the number of positive cases, the stricter recommended mask and in-person classrooms guidelines are.
Cache Public Schools Superintendent Chad Hance said his district has adopted that color-coded policy because of the flexibility it provides (Altus Public Schools also is considering it).
“I think that is something we can look at, week by week,” Hance said, explaining the policy allows his district to evaluate the county as a whole and how COVID-19 cases change before making a decision for its students. “It gives us a playbook we go by. There is nothing written in a textbook that we can follow on this.”
A playbook is what the state board of education had in mind when providing the policy, which makes masks suggestions at the green level (only one county in the state was at that level, as of Friday), with requirements ramping up for yellow (which is where Comanche County is), to two levels of orange (mandates for masks and strictly limiting in-person attendance), to red, the worst rating where class attendance is mostly virtual. At yellow, masks are recommended for students in grades four through 12; at orange, they are recommended for everyone.
Acknowledging the coming requirement for masks, Lawton Public Schools made the decision last month to buy a 100,000 supply of disposable masks for students and staff.
In addition, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management is coordinating with the Oklahoma Department of Education to distribute masks, face shields and disposal gloves and gowns that the state will purchase under funding Oklahoma received from the federal CARES Act. Gov. Kevin Stitt said last week the state would purchase 1.7 million reusable face masks (enough for two per teacher and two per student), 42,000 clear face shields, and 1.2 million pairs of disposal gloves and 1.2 million disposable gowns. Stitt said the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management will distribute the supplies to regional warehouses for pickup by schools by Aug. 14.