Some Oklahoma school leaders are voicing their concerns about the governor’s new recommendations to get students back in classrooms.
Governor Kevin Stitt and Health Commissioner Lance Frye say these new guidelines are intended to improve in-school attendance of students and staff who have an in-school exposure to COVID-19.
The State Health Department said, “Students and teachers exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 in school are no longer required to be excluded from educational activities and in-person classroom instruction as long as the exposure happened in a classroom setting and everyone was wearing masks covering their nose and mouth.”
School leaders say these new guidelines contradict what the CDC is saying and many of them are concerned about what path to take moving forward.
"There is a lot of data about this and our CDC health experts and the American Academy of Pediatrics and what we heard yesterday is not aligned to the science,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.
Bixby Public Schools Superintendent Rob Miller said districts received information from the Governor’s office yesterday that mentioned social distancing was still a factor in deciding whether or not students needed to be quarantined, but the additional guidelines Wednesday don’t mention social distancing.
“It really puts us in a challenging position to try and manage those when before we all had the same consistent policy from district to district where as now districts can make up their own rules,” said Miller.
The CDC’s quarantining guidelines say if someone is within six feet of someone who tests positive for more than 15 minutes then they still need to quarantine even if they are wearing a mask.
The new guidance from the State Health Department, which cites the American Academy of Pediatrics, says students don’t need to quarantine as long as they were all wearing masks.
“Guaranteeing a student has their mask on properly all day long is just so hard to do,” said Bixby High School Nurse Tory Kraus.
Right now, Bixby Public Schools has 34 positive cases district wide, with 164 students and 14 staff in quarantine.
Miller said students must wear masks, but keeping them at least six feet apart is difficult in a 900-square foot classroom. Miller said this new guidance puts a lot of pressure on district leaders.
"If we stay with that policy then we are going to have parents upset when we quarantine a student based on this new guidance but we are also going to have families upset if we modify or cut some corners on our quarantine policy,” said Miller.
He said the new policies also cause a lot of logistical issues.
Students who were exposed could still come to class as long as they wear a mask and aren't showing symptoms, but they wouldn't be able to attend sports practices, band or lunch where masks aren't worn. However, if a student is exposed in an area of the school where masks aren’t worn —then quarantine guidelines will remain the same.
“The quarantine rules would be modified to allow those students to continue to go to instructional classes but the quarantine would still be in effect,” said Miller. “So if the student participated in sports or had a band or P.E. class, they would still be quarantined from those classes, but not the academic classes where they are wearing a mask.”
Miller said this is extremely frustrating.
“It is extremely convoluted and difficult operationally and logistically for any school district to manage these quarantines this way and what I am afraid of is it really sets school leaders up as being a target for both families and our teachers,” said Miller.
Miller said they need to look at all the data before they decide whether or not to make any changes to their current quarantine policy.
Other schools like Union Public Schools said they've already decided that they will continue to follow CDC guidance and continue to quarantine students who are exposed
"To think that we can just put on a mask and not worry about the spread I don’t think is a responsible thing to do,” said Union Superintendent Dr. Kirt Hartzler. “I think every district has to evaluate where they stand in regard to supplies, staffing and all those other measures we have to have in place."
Dr. Hartzler said this plan has worked for Union, but each district is different and has different concerns.
"We all have different conditions, we all have different facilities, we all have different air conditioning systems and a host of other variables that we have to consider to be able to have in person learning,” said Dr. Hartzler.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said COVID-19 is running rampant across the state and community members need to do their part to keep kids in the classroom.
"Working as a community to lower the spread of the virus is the best way to help our schools return to in person learning,” said Hofmeister.
The State Health Department said this is not a mandatory policy.
School districts have the ability to decide whether to implement this policy or continue with their current plan.