Insisting on in-person options statewide, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced a new policy Tuesday aimed at reducing school quarantines for COVID-19.
"Students and teachers exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 in school will no longer be required to quarantine as long as the exposure happened in a classroom setting [and] everyone was wearing masks and following other appropriate protocols, like social distancing," said State Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye.
Students and school staff exposed during after-school activities or outside of school will still be required to quarantine. Utah, Missouri and Ohio have similar guidelines.
Frye said the state will also double the number of coronavirus tests and the supply of personal protective equipment distributed to schools in order to support a return to the classroom.
In support of the new policy, Stitt cited a nine-week study of 11 North Carolina districts last fall showing in-school transmission was rare. The schools used a hybrid model where students attended twice a week with buildings at partial capacity, masks and distancing required, and daily health screenings.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has said schools are vital to children's educational, social, emotional and physical development. The group recommends schools implement science-based measures to return safely, including requiring everyone 2 years and older to wear cloth face coverings, enforcing physical distancing and improving air circulation. AAP says it's also important to reduce the spread of the virus within communities and ensure access to testing to help make it safer to re-enter schools.
Stitt continued to criticize districts like Oklahoma City and Tulsa public schools that have pushed back in-person returns amid rising COVID numbers, despite saying he supports local control.
"Parents need the option to get their kids back in school. Decisions about school should be made by parents at the dinner table, not at a union hall by people with their own agenda," Stitt said.
The governor’s office said it consulted teachers in coming up with the new plan, including Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, who is a member of the Stitt's cabinet. The Oklahoma State Department of Education, however, was not consulted about the change.
"While this option underscores the need for mask requirements in school, I cannot in good conscience support ignoring quarantine guidelines from the CDC and other infectious disease experts," State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who was not invited to Tuesday's announcement, said in a statement. "There is no doubt we all want our students and teachers to be safely in the classroom, but COVID is raging in Oklahoma. In-person instruction is critical, and so is mitigating the spread of the virus. They are not mutually exclusive."
According to The Frontier, the 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.
The Oklahoma Education Association, which represents 40,000 educators, surveyed its members last month and reported 67% don’t believe schools are currently safe for in-person instruction, and 12% had contracted COVID-19, a percentage on par with health care workers.
"Time is running out for our kids this school year. The governor needs to stop using his time dividing teachers and parents. His No. 1 priority should be mitigating the spread of the virus — not scapegoating local school boards, pitting parents against teachers, or avoiding responsibility," OEA President Alicia Priest said in a statement.
The district and Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association issued a joint statement Tuesday afternoon, saying everyone wants to be back in their classrooms but district leaders have consistently used data to guide their decisions to delay returning.
"The COVID rates for Tulsa County and all of Oklahoma are at their highest point. In fact, Oklahoma is again a 'top ten' state for COVID cases and for positivity rates, and there is no indication that rates will decline soon particularly since we have no state mask requirement," they said.
Mustang Public Schools, which tried out the state's temporary in-school quarantine program last month, notified parents they would not follow the new policy.
"We look forward to seeing this new OSDH policy in writing, but we will continue to follow science-based protocols vetted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and health professionals. The health and safety of our school community is, and always has been, our number one priority," said Superintendent Charles Bradley.