Gov. Kevin Stitt introduced new policy options Tuesday regarding how schools handle quarantining for COVID-19.
“We need to put our students first, and we need to get them back in class,” Gov. Stitt said. “Refusing to offer in-person school is jeopardizing our kids’ education; it’s jeopardizing teachers’ careers; and it’s jeopardizing the future of the State of Oklahoma. Today, we’re announcing a new policy which will help us keep schools open safely. It also will help encourage and reward mask wearing in schools across the state. Moving forward, schools that enforce the use of masks will not have to quarantine students that were potentially exposed to COVID-19 unless they are showing symptoms.” Gov. Stitt and Commissioner of Health
Dr. Lance Frye emphasized the new Oklahoma State Department of Health policy is intended to keep students and teachers safe in school also while incentivizing mask usage and other precautions for school districts across the state.
As part of the new policy, schools should continue to require quarantines for exposed students in situations where masking and distancing protocols were not followed. Additionally, the updated quarantine guidance does not apply if the exposure occurs during after-school activities, including sports. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 must continue to isolate regardless where they contracted the virus or were wearing a mask.
The state is prioritizing vaccinations for teachers who are 65 and older this week and next and will open vaccinations up to all teachers as soon as vaccine availability allows. The state also will double the amount of rapid antigen tests provided to schools to encourage frequent testing to catch any positive cases early.
“As a physician, I follow the science, and it’s been critical to our COVID-19 response to do so,” Dr. Frye said. “But it’s also important to look at factors on the ground, and schools have proven to be one of the safest places for most of our students. Other states such as Missouri, Utah and Ohio have put similar quarantine policies into place and haven’t seen large outbreaks occur in schools. This aligns with the trends we’ve seen in our own state, largely thanks to our parents, students, teachers and school administrators who have been doing an outstanding job following precautions and keeping our students safe.”
Data also shows — and the CDC recommends — getting students safely back to in-person learning is critical for their educational success, mental health and social development, Dr. Frye said.
“Our public health decisions need to balance all facets of health, and we’re confident this new policy will allow our students to safely thrive in the classroom,” Dr. Frye said.
But Democrats in the Oklahoma House of Representatives didn’t agree with Gov. Stitt’s policy, saying the new policy ignores CDC guidelines.
“The state data shows kids under 15 were ten percent of all cases in the weeks before the holidays,” Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, said. “After the holidays, when kids were out of school, the number dropped by 50 percent. Last week, kids under 15 just accounted for five percent of all cases. The state’s own data doesn’t support the Governor’s reckless plan. It’s time for him to stop blaming the unions for his failure to provide informed leadership.”
Another representative compared what Stitt is trying to do with what Mustang Public Schools. Mustang attempted to allow students exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine together in school, as part of a pilot program by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
“The governor, who recently enacted COVID-19 precautions to close bars after 11 p.m., is now advocating for a largescale return to in-person school across the state,” Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, said. “The only change instituted was suggesting if mask mandates were in place, exposed children do not have to quarantine out of school. This didn’t work in Mustang Public Schools — why should we believe it would statewide? Oklahomans should understand in the governor’s demand for schools to return to in person learning, he offered no additional guidance or resources for Oklahoma public schools to do so safely.”
Another Democrat suggested the governor follow through with a statewide mask mandate.
“I’m happy to hear the governor agrees that a mask mandate works for school populations,” Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater said. “I encourage him to issue a statewide mask mandate as our schools are part of our communities. Everyone — students, teachers and staff — deserves a safe working environment.”
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, one of two teachers unions in the state, said the OEA wants what’s best for kids.
“We believe everyone should have a great public school no matter where they live. In-person learning is best for teachers and students. We can’t wait for COVID-19 to be completely gone before school goes back to normal,” Priest said. “But the governor’s remarks are confusing.”
Priest asked what the governor is doing to ensure schools are safe.
“He calls for no quarantining when there is a mask policy but won’t demand strong mask policies. He cherry picks data instead of holistically tackling the pandemic. Even sources cited by the governor say that school buildings are no longer safe when community spread reaches dangerous levels,” Priest said.