Public health experts and physicians' groups said Thursday that Gov. Kevin Stitt is misrepresenting research to justify his push for all school districts in Oklahoma to offer in-person learning despite the state's severe and dire COVID-19 situation.
In support of a new state policy to allow some students and teachers to forgo quarantine after exposure to COVID-19 in certain situations, Stitt on Tuesday cited a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In a Facebook post, he wrote, "I've said it, and the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. We can get kids back in the classroom safely."
The Oklahoma chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, though, said neither they nor the study support the governor's new policy.
"The new guidance issued by the [Oklahoma State Department of Health] regarding school quarantine does not adhere with the recommendations of the AAP nor the CDC," the Oklahoma chapter of the organization said in a statement. "The data referenced by Governor Stitt is based on a single study conducted in North Carolina in specific districts that strictly adhered to multiple mitigation strategies. This is not consistent with the current COVID-19 surge in Oklahoma."
"In order to improve our current situation in Oklahoma, similar community measures that were used in North Carolina are needed, such as a statewide mask mandate, continued social distancing, limitations on indoor gatherings, and required mitigation strategies in schools," the statement concludes.
“What is key, is that there is 99% mask compliance for every person in the mainstream curriculum that steps on school property," said Dr. Daniel Kelly Benjamin, senior author of the study cited by the governor, in a statement. "It’s the mitigation strategies -- distancing, masking, hand hygiene -- that are crucially important. If a school district does not do these things, they will likely make the pandemic worse by being open. This is why we don’t advise ‘you should open’ or ‘you should go remote,’ because it’s all about the public health measures."
"During that time, test positivity in North Carolina was approximately 6%. Currently in Oklahoma, test positivity is 23%," said Kary Webber, executive vice president of the Oklahoma AAP chapter, in a statement. "Medical professionals caution that these results need to be interpreted in the context of the study conditions and point out that the low transmission rates highlighted resulted from multiple mitigation factors, many of which are not in place in Oklahoma."
Reached by phone Wednesday, Webber said she was caught offguard by the governor's press conference.
"We've had a back-to-school, or school-during-COVID, task force the entire time, working -- or trying to work -- hand-in-hand with the state on the best recommendations for how to return to school safely, and when we saw the press conference [Tuesday], and it was stated that the recommendations came from the AAP, I think it just put a lot of confusion out into the public," Webber said.
"We wanted to clear that up. We wanted to let people know that the AAP -- that's not the recommendation for the public. It doesn't follow the CDC guidelines, it doesn't follow our AAP guidelines, it's completely different than the recommendation we have," Webber said.
"Being a trusted source for information, especially when you're misquoted -- then, I think, all it did was cause a little bit more confusion," Webber said.
“If we are serious about in-person learning, we must be committed to embracing the same level of mitigation efforts as those highlighted in this study. We encourage schools to adopt strong prevention guidance and confer with county health departments for the safety of teachers and families.,” said Dr. Dwight Sublett, president of the Oklahoma AAP chapter.
“We all want our kids back in school; however, we must do so safely," said Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, in a statement. "While Oklahoma’s schools have not been hotspots for spreading the disease, that is due to the fact that many schools have put mask policies in place and followed CDC guidelines for quarantine and hygiene. The Oklahoma State Medical Association supports leaders like (State) Superintendent (Joy) Hofmeister and the district officials who have already announced they will stick to fact-based CDC guidelines. We urge other districts to follow suit." (Hofmeister issued a statement Tuesday rejecting the governor's new policy, which she said she was not consulted about nor informed of before the governor's press conference.)
“We encourage policymakers to confer with experts in interpreting scientific studies,” Dr. Sam Ratermann, president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians, said in a statement.
In a statement, Stitt spokesperson Charlie Hannema dismissed the health professionals' concerns.
“It’s disappointing to see the lengths some will go to in order to stand in the way of Governor Stitt putting students first and ensuring all Oklahoma children have the option to choose in-person learning," Hannema said. "While some cling to vague references to CDC guidelines, they conveniently ignore that the CDC has said schools can reopen safely and responsibly and the CDC’s recent study that found counties with in-person learning actually had fewer cases than counties where students were denied the choice to return to their classrooms.”
Hannema linked to a video of CDC Director Robert Redfield the governor tweeted in December and a CNN article about a CDC study to support the office's claims. However, the second sentence of the CNN article notes that "to safely reopen schools, however, transmission in communities must be kept in check." According to national data from the CDC, Oklahoma has the highest coronavirus test positivity rate in the United States.
The CNN article also represents the CDC study as concluding that "communities and schools should implement mitigation strategies such as wearing masks, and people must adhere to them."
According to The Frontier, the Oklahoma State Department of Education floated a plan last month to have schools return with a mask mandate in school facilities, but the governor rejected it. Outside of school settings, too, Stitt has long opposed a statewide mask mandate.
In a statement, State Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said "the American Association of Pediatrics study was one of many resources used to make the updates to school quarantine guidance. In this case, the data shows that when adhering to mitigation efforts, transmission of COVID-19 in schools is very minimal."
"As a result, in order to qualify for the new school quarantine guidance announced on January 12, schools must have multiple mitigation measures in place to prevent transmission, as evidenced by the AAP study. The policy is not mandatory, but if a school chooses to implement it, it is contingent upon students wearing masks and social distancing. OSDH believes this will incentivize and reward schools for requiring students to wear masks at school," Frye said.
"Additionally, this guidance is intended only for exposures that occur in classrooms, and will still require exclusion from all public settings outside of the student’s in-person classroom setting. The new school guidance is intended to provide students and parents with the support they need, while reinforcing the need for continued preventative measures, such as wearing a mask, washing your hands and watching your distance," Frye's statement concludes.