Oklahoma schools will not be required by the state to institute any specific COVID safety protocols if the pandemic worsens after kids return to school.
On a 4–3 vote Thursday, the Oklahoma State Board of Education approved a motion to reduce any requirements in a proposed set of COVID safety protocols to recommendations.
The proposed requirements, like masks and shifting to distance learning, were based on the state's COVID Alert System, which places counties at green, yellow or orange levels on a weekly basis based on their rate of cases per 100,000, a calculation that can be done regardless of an area's actual population.
Some board members worried any mandates were unnecessary interference with local control.
"I see it from a 30,000-foot view, and I think we need to also see it that this discussion is really about our republic," said board member Estela Hernandez.
Board member Carlisha Williams Bradley attempted to restore proposed requirements that would not affect instruction, but her procedural motion to do so was defeated.
"I actually don’t see our inactivity of a decision to mandate something today as an elevation of our care or concern for the safety of students. It just said, 'We gave you one more thing that you can choose to do or choose not to do,'" Bradley said, noting the State Department of Education had issued recommendations in June when it published a "return to learn" plan for districts.
Board member Jennifer Monies said many districts’ boards have already adopted plans.
"What ultimately makes the most sense for my kids’ school and my kids’ district is something that, that local board is going to best understand based on our building and our ability to social distance, based on our population of students and teachers," Monies said.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she is disappointed by the vote.
"All of the protocol is as a recommendation to districts. There is no safety requirement of schools," Hofmeister said at the end of the board meeting's consideration of the safety protocols.
"I disagree with that. We strongly recommend guidance and so forth. And so, there’s nothing diminished from it," board member Bill Flanagan responded.
According to the originally proposed protocols, schools in counties with fewer than 1.43 cases per 100,000 would be at green level and expected to offer in-person instruction; masks would be strongly recommended for students, teachers and staff; it would be recommended that visitors are limited; and extracurricular activities would be allowed.
Schools in counties with 1.43 to 14.39 cases per 100,000 would be at yellow level and expected to offer in-person instruction; masks would be required for adults and students in fourth grade and up, and required for younger students while in common areas outside their classrooms; visitors would be limited; and it would be recommended that extracurricular activities be limited.
Schools in counties with 14.39 to 25 cases per 100,000 would be at orange level 1, and it would be recommended they use alternative schedules or distance learning, masks would be required for all students and staff, visitors would be limited, and buildings could not be used for extracurricular activities unless physical distancing were possible.
Schools in counties with 25 to 50 cases per 100,000 would be at orange level 2 and would be required to use distance learning plans, masks would be required for anyone on campus, visitors would be restricted, and buildings could not be used for extracurricular activities or public gatherings.
Schools in counties with more than 50 cases per 100,000 would be at red level. The restrictions would be the same as the previous level, though Hofmeister said she would not expect schools in such communities to be open at all because of the number of people who would be in quarantine.