Governor enacts controversial COVID-19 policy for Oklahoma schools

By Michael Kinney

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has been a proponent for in-person learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He has consistently said keeping students in school is key.

On Tuesday Stitt announced an updated policy that schools with mask mandates do not have to quarantine those potentially exposed to COVID-19 unless the individual is showing symptoms.

“We’re announcing a new policy that will help us keep our kids and our schools open safely, and will also help encourage and reward mask wearing in schools across the state,” Stitt said at a press conference Tuesday. “Moving forward, schools that enforce the use of masks will not have to quarantine potential exposures unless they’re showing symptoms. This is what’s best for our students, period, end of story.”

According to Oklahoma’s Commissioner of Health Lance Frye, the new policy states schools no longer will use exposure to COVID-19 as a reason to quarantine. This will keep students in the classroom when they have not tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Students and teachers exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 at school will no longer be required to quarantine as long as the exposure happened in a classroom setting, everyone was wearing a mask and following other appropriate protocols such as social distancing,” Frye said. “Schools should continue to require quarantines for exposed students in situations where masking and distancing protocols were not followed.”

According to Stitt, students who are forced to do virtual learning instead of in-person learning are being hurt. He used the Oklahoma City Public Schools as an example where 66% more high school students have an F in one of their classes compared to the last year and 59% of OKC high school students were failing in at least one class.

Oklahoma City schools have been learning virtually most of the school year.

“These kids are struggling and it’s not their fault,” said Stitt. “They need to be in the classrooms, and they need their teachers. I know so many teachers want to be back in school to help these kids, but they’re being denied the chance.”

However, OKCPS Superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel was not happy with Stitt’s assessment.

“In his remarks, the Governor attempted to characterize the current academic performance at OKCPS high schools. Unfortunately, the data he used was out of date, wildly inaccurate and very misleading. Like many districts, we have gotten better at remote learning while moving through the pandemic, and we continue to make great strides,” McDaniel said. “Thanks to the hard work of our teachers, staff and certainly our students, OKCPS has seen marked improvement since our first few weeks of school, which is what the data he used today represented. It is unfortunate that in order to make his point – one that I substantively agree with – the Governor chose to misrepresent OKCPS and cast our kids and our teachers in a negative light.”

Despite that, not everyone is happy with the new school policy. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister released a statement right after Stitt’s press conference in which she came out against the new policy.

“The ramifications of the pandemic on education have been challenging and severe,” said Hofmeister. “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.

“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.”

After Stitt’s announcement, he began to get push back from school districts around the state.

Stitt’s announcement came just days after the state broke its own record for COVID-19 positive cases with 6,487 reported Sunday. Oklahoma also passed the 2,800 mark for COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday.

However, according to Frye and Stitt, their findings have shown very little spread of the virus has occurred in schools that use in-person learning.

“A Rockefeller Foundation Study found that in schools and universities that have instituted regular rapid turn- around testing coupled with mandatory mask usage and social distancing, transmission rates are extremely low to nonexistent,” Frye said. 

“We know when safety protocols are followed consistently like washing your hands, watching your distance and wearing a mask, our schools have been and will continue to be one of the safest places for our students.”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which was released Wednesday, seemed to back up Stitt’s position that transmission of the virus was low among children in school. It concluded schools should be the last to close, and the first to re-open.

“CDC recommends that K-12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” according to the report.

Stitt emphasized he has made his decision based on medical experts.

“Let me be clear, the data continues to show in-person learning is safe,” the governor stated. “Some people want to move the goalpost and say that we shouldn’t be back in school until we have zero cases in the community. That is absolute nonsense. The American Academy of Pediatrics even says, our data support the concept that schools can stay open safely, even in communities with widespread community transmission. Most of our school districts have been open. And many of them returned to in-person learning this week. That is absolutely the right call. I applaud these superintendents, these local school boards, for putting their students first.”

Several school districts in Oklahoma have given students the option of in-person learning or virtual learning.

“Refusing to offer in-person school is jeopardizing our kids’ education, it’s jeopardizing our teachers’ careers, and it’s jeopardizing the future of the State of Oklahoma,” said Stitt.

Michael Kinney Media

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