The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to recommend, rather than require, masks for students and staff when they return to school next month.
Now it is up to local school districts to make decisions instead of a statewide mandate.
The school board was split 4-3 on the issue, with the state superintendent saying Thursday that she is concerned because of this decision, that some school districts will be "afraid to open.”
Before board members voted to approve the safety protocols, they heard concerns from two parents about sending their kids back to school; Tahlequah parent Jami Murphy, and Kari Phillips, who said she lives in Piedmont and is a teacher at Mid-Del Public Schools.
"My school district -- there is no way we would be able to do any social distancing. We just don't have the space, the amount of kids we have in our school. It's just not feasible,” Phillips said.
Murphy expressed her concerns, too
"From a parent's perspective, I am terrified as well as a lot of other parents of sending our kids to school. A little extra time would be beneficial. The virus is no joke and our teachers who we trust in their care deserve to feel safe,” she said.
For more than an hour board members debated whether the state should set a requirement for districts to follow.
"I actually like these protocols but as guidelines or suggestions. And I'd actually like to make a motion that we would use them as guidelines and suggestions and not mandates,” State School Board Member Brian Bobek said.
Three board members, Estela Hernandez, William Flanagan and Jennifer Monies, agreed with Bobeck.
But 2 other board members, Carlisha Williams Bradley and Kurt Bollenbach, along with State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, voted “no” for the change. They wanted stronger safety measures set by the state, not simply recommendations.
"This is a time for leadership. This is a time where the citizens of Oklahoma that are under compulsory laws to send their children to school have to have assurance that their children will have safeguards in place,” Hofmeister said.
The recommendations are about more than masks. They also give districts guidelines for instruction, visitors and activities.
What the state recommends is based on the number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the county where a school district is located.
The Board of Education breaks the levels down to Green, being the fewest number of cases, Yellow, Orange Level 1, Orange Level 2 and Red, which is the highest with more than 50 cases per 100,00 people.
As of July 16, the state health department website shows the majority of counties across the state are yellow and none are red.
The decision the board made Thursday expires September 30,, when the board said it will revisit it and consider any changes moving forward.
To learn more about the recommendations for each level, click here, then click on “School Safety Protocols Presentation.” A spokesperson for the Department of Education said everything that currently says “required,” was voted to become “recommended.”