As Schools, Colleges Reopen, Some Health Experts Worry: 'Things Could Really Change For The Worse'

Aug 17, 2020

A sorority house at Oklahoma State. The Sooners football team. The faculty and staff of Broken Arrow Public Schools.

All have been sites of recent coronavirus outbreak "clusters." As more districts and universities bring students back to school buildings and campuses, epidemiologists and other public health experts are worrying that Oklahoma's trends in new infections, which have been slowly tacking downward in recent days, could change course.

"We will start probably seeing the impact on the growing number of cases probably this next week," said Dr. Jennifer Clark of the University of Tulsa's Oxley College of Health Sciences, on a Monday teleconference with health care providers and public health professionals organized by the OSU Center for Health Sciences.

Following a Sunday visit to Tulsa by Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force, Gov. Kevin Stitt recounted that Birx warned that "we can get some spikes very quickly." (Press was not allowed to be present for the meeting or speak with Birx afterwards.)

"At a moment's notice, things could really change for the worse, actually," Clark said Monday. "One of the things that she mentioned was this concern about the asymptomatic spread that they saw in the South, and they believe Oklahoma's actually behind that, and was not actually part of that, and it's something that we need to be aware of, especially as we start opening schools."

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum recounted Birx as saying we could be four-to-six weeks behind the type of surges seen in some Southern states.

Dr. Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department, has recommended that schools in Tulsa County not reopen for in-person classes just yet due to the severity of the outbreak here, but several districts, including Broken Arrow, Union, and Bixby, have so far declined his recommendations.

On the Monday teleconference, Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa), who sits on the education committee in the Oklahoma House and is a teacher, said he and many parents in his district are very concerned.

"Lots of parents are starting to form pods and homeschooling their kids, because they don't trust that the schools are going to keep them safe," Waldron said.

Last week Waldron described the patchwork of reopen plans across Oklahoma, where the State Board of Education voted not to require anything of districts regarding reopening during the pandemic, as "fragmented," which he called concerning. 

"In our effort to establish standards, we failed to make them stick," Waldron said Monday. "I'm a history teacher. I think that's what we're going to report about this outbreak. [Health workers] have done a wonderful job, but our leadership is not onboard."