OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — In his first press briefing since December of 2020, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Tuesday announced a new policy for schools in Oklahoma.
Since the last update, the state has moved into Phase 2 of its COVID-19 vaccination plan which is getting shots to the at-risk population 65 years old or older, and school staff and teachers.
On Tuesday, Governor Stitt and State Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye announced a new policy for schools that enforce the use of masks.
“Today, we’re announcing a new policy that will help us keep schools open safely,” said Stitt. “It will also help encourage and reward mask-wearing in schools across the state.”
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.
Stitt insisted schools in the state that are still keeping children out of classrooms are threatening those students’ learning.
“We need to put our students first, and we need to get them back in class,” said Stitt. “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.”
Stitt specifically named Oklahoma City Public Schools as a district that continues to “refuse to let their parents send kids to school.”
Dr. Frye said Tuesday the state has seen “very little” spread of the virus in school settings. He says the state is working to get teachers 65 and older vaccinated as soon as this week, and they will start vaccinating other teachers as soon as vaccine supply is available.
“As a physician, I follow the science, and it’s been critical to our COVID-19 response to do so,” said Commissioner Frye. “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.”
Frye added, “Data also shows—and the CDC recommends—that getting students safely back to in-person learning is critical for their educational success, mental health, and social development. 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.”
Governor Stitt praised Broken Arrow Public Schools as an example of a large school district that allowed students into classrooms during the pandemic.
As of Jan. 12, Broken Arrow had 106 total positive cases in students and 674 students quarantining due to close contact with someone who had tested positive. The district has 18,658 students enrolled in in-person learning and a mask requirement for grades 3-12.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister was not invited to speak at Tuesday’s news conference and was not consulted on the policy changes.
Hofmeister later released the following statement:
“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.”
Tulsa Public Schools and the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association released a statement following the news conference saying they’ll still need time to review the new policy before making changes to their plans:
“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 released a statement saying students and staff in quarantine should remain following the district’s current protocol until the state passes along further guidance:
“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.”
A similar statement followed from Jenks Public Schools which also didn’t receive notice of the new policy before Stitt’s announcement on Tuesday:
“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 followed up with a statement saying they will continue to adhere to existing quarantine protocols:
“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. Thank you for your patience and partnership as we continue to navigate circumstances surrounding COVID-19.”
Many members of the Oklahoma Democratic Caucus also released statements in response to Gov. Stitt’s conference. Below is one from local Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa.
“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. 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.”