Governor Kevin Stitt made big changes to Oklahoma’s quarantine guidelines for students, with the goal of keeping more kids in the classroom, but other state leaders have voiced their concerns.
The changes come as the state surpasses 2,800 total deaths with the state reporting 29 new virus-related deaths Tuesday.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is critical of the governor's new guidelines, saying that while she agrees in-person school is critical, COVID-19 is still rampant in the state.
"The ramifications of the pandemic on education have been challenging and severe. 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."
The Governor announced that going forward teachers or students who are exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 will not have to quarantine as long as that exposure happened in a classroom setting and all protocols were being followed. Those protocols include wearing masks, social distancing, and maintaining recommended cleaning measures. The change does not apply if the exposure comes outside of the classroom setting.
Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist emphasized that the district is committed to using data and science to make their decisions. She issued the following statement in response to Governor Stitt's guidelines:
"Throughout the pandemic, our district leaders have been consistent. When making decisions, we use science and data, and we follow the guidance of our public health professionals.
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.
No one wants our students back in their classrooms with their teachers and peers as much as we do. Our students, our teachers, our team, our board, and our parents are all very anxious to get back to in-person learning safely. We are also committed to the safety of our students, our team members, and their families.
Since we are committed to using science to inform our decisions, we will carefully review the two studies that the governor and his team referenced today.
We need for Tulsans to continue to wear their masks, wash their hands often, and practice safe distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. When we all use these precautions, we can reduce COVID cases and ensure our students can safely return to their classrooms."
Bixby Public Schools issued this statement in response to the changes,
"Following Gov. Stitt’s Press Conference Bixby Schools is reviewing today’s announcement from Governor Stitt relative to COVID-19 and school quarantine protocols. We had no advance knowledge of this information prior to the governor’s press conference this afternoon and are awaiting final written guidance from the state before making any changes to our existing protocol. Should this guidance result in any changes to our current protocol, we will communicate with employees and families. Students and staff members currently in quarantine should complete the quarantine unless otherwise notified."
Jenks Public Schools also issued a statement regarding the governor's press conference, saying they will first review the guidance before making any changes.
The statements by Governor Stitt regarding a possible change in quarantine policy for schools arrived to JPS officials as new information. Like others, we heard all of this for the first time during the Governor’s press conference this afternoon.
Before we change course or make any decisions about modifying our protocols, we must receive and review the written guidance from state officials. Once the guidance has been thoroughly reviewed and decisions for our district have been finalized, we will communicate with employees and families.
We know some will have expectations for immediate change, while others will prefer to continue with existing protocols. As of now, JPS is maintaining current quarantine protocols. Those students and staff members in quarantine should complete the quarantine unless otherwise notified.
Please allow our district time to analyze this new information and act accordingly. We want our schools to be open for in-person learning for as long as possible, and we want to make sure we can do so safely and responsibly.
Owasso Public Schools also issued a statement in response to the governor's announcement; They said that they are "awaiting written guidance from the state before considering modifications to our current practices and procedures."
We are aware that many of our families will have questions regarding the information that Gov. Kevin Stitt and other state officials shared this afternoon regarding quarantine guidelines in schools. Like many of you, we heard this information for the first time as it was announced during the Governor’s press conference today.
We are awaiting written guidance from the state before considering modifications to our current practices and procedures. Once we have reviewed the state’s guidance, we will determine what changes, if any, are appropriate for our district and communicate that information to you.
Until further notice, we will continue to adhere to existing quarantine protocols. Students and staff members in quarantine will complete the quarantine timeline unless otherwise notified.
The Oklahoma Education Association emphasized that the governor’s message was confusing.
"The governor and his team have many of the same values as the educators who make up the OEA. We want what’s best for kids. In-person learning is best for teachers and students. But the governor’s remarks are confusing,” the OEA said in a statement. “The governor says schools are safe, but what is he doing to ensure that? 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.”
You can read the rest of the statement from OEA below.
"He preaches local control unless he disagrees with local choices. Local school boards, who listen to parents in their communities, are the decision makers for our Oklahoma schools.
“The governor says schools aren’t open, but where are all these schools that aren’t open? Many educators and support professionals have been battling the pandemic while teaching, feeding students, and keeping everyone safe. Burnout is real, and many have been sick. Some have died. Don’t accuse teachers of not trying when they are in the fire right now.
“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.”
State Representatives offered their statements in response to the Governor’s new changes.
“The state data shows kids under 15 were ten percent of all cases in the weeks before the holidays,” said Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City. “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.”
“The governor, who recently enacted COVID precautions to close bars after 11 p.m., is now advocating for a large-scale return to in-person school across the state,” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “The only change instituted was suggesting that 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 that 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.”
“I’m happy to hear the governor agrees that a mask mandate works for school populations,” said Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater. “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.”
"While I applaud the effort of the governor to focus on how to keep students in school,” said Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, “I'm concerned that teachers weren't contacted about this policy change, and I'm further concerned that Superintendent Hofmeister wasn't invited to the press conference. While we all agree that in-person learning is the best way for children to learn, this policy doesn't go far enough to ensure the safety of teachers, students, and staff. I urge the governor to call for a mask mandate, which is proven to be the best way to mitigate the spread of this virus, inside and outside of our schools.”