Should masks be required in schools? At what level of community spread of COVID-19 should schools pivot from in-person to distance learning? 

As school leaders are developing plans for back-to-school with these difficult public health considerations in mind, they are looking for guidance. 

The state Department of Education is providing a set of protocols to inform those decisions. But they will be recommendations, not mandates, after a narrow vote by the state Board of Education on Thursday. 

By a 4-3 vote, the board opted to approve the proposal as a set of recommendations only. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister was among the three no votes, along with Carlisha Williams Bradley of Tulsa and Kurt Bollenbach of Kingfisher. Voting to approve were Brian Bobek, Jennifer Monies and Estela Hernandez of Oklahoma City and Bill Flanagan of Claremore.

The board then reconsidered at Bradley’s request, but that failed to pass. 

Following the vote, Hofmeister expressed her disappointment.

“Now that the board has made its decision, we strongly urge districts across the state to do the right thing and demonstrate the Oklahoma standard by masking up and following social distancing guidelines,” she said. 

Here some highlights from the board’s discussion: 

The Proposal 

Oklahoma’s color-coded COVID-19 Alert System uses green to indicate a normal risk level, yellow low risk, orange moderate risk and red high risk.

The guidance to schools uses the state’s new COVID-19 Alert System to determine risk levels in each county. The alert system is color-coded, with green indicating a normal level of risk, yellow low risk, orange moderate risk and red high risk. The Education Department’s protocols add in a fifth category: orange 2. 

County risk levels are updated weekly on Fridays. Currently, most counties are in yellow, but there are 18 counties in orange and 6 in green. 

Under the guidelines, schools are expected to provide in-person instruction in the green and yellow risk categories; at orange 1, schools should implement alternative schedules; and at orange 2 and red, switch to distance learning. 

The protocols also address activities held on school campuses, which would include athletics. Activities where social distancing is not possible are not recommended at the orange level; activities are not recommended at all at orange 2 and red levels. 

The idea of the system is to get community buy-in. 

“Schools are not a bubble,” said Brad Clark, an attorney for the department. “This requires a community commitment to keep schools open.” 

Mask Mandate 

School leaders have much to consider regarding masks and it’s one of the most divisive issues right now. Parents fall on both sides of the issue, and leaders are caught in the middle trying to create a balance. 

Oklahoma City Public Schools, for instance, originally said it would require teachers and staff to wear masks in schools, but would not require students to do so. Then, they reversed course. Earlier this week, the district’s board opted to delay the start of the school year and provide distance learning to all students for the entire first quarter.

The department’s original proposal would have required masks at risk levels yellow, orange and red, while requiring students in pre-K through third grade to wear masks in common areas only at the yellow level. 

The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organizations now recommend masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “What has become crystal clear is masks actually work,” Hofmeister said. 

Whether to require masks in schools will now be up to individual districts. 

Local Control vs. State Guidance

In voting to remove the mandates from the proposal, the board members cited local control as the dominant issue. 

“This isn’t about masks,” Hernandez said, in arguing against issuing requirements. “It’s about bottom-up, not top-down.” 

Monies, too, said school leaders should have the final say as their plans are more nimble and they know their communities and resources better. Many districts have already announced plans, she added, and issuing mandates now could disrupt that. 

School leaders, though, are educators, not epidemiologists. “I do trust local leaders,” Bradley said. “I also know they are not health experts.”

At a district board meeting last week, Norman Superintendent Nick Migliorino said the district has struggled to make public health and safety decisions amid a fast moving pandemic. 

“We have created this framework…without what I would call appropriate direction and leadership from the highest levels of our state, and I’m just going to say that out loud: we really need guidance,” he said, according to a story in the Norman Transcript. 

A survey by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association found that more than half (55%) of superintendents support a state mask mandate tied to the COVID-19 alert system; among school board members across the state, the percent in support was about a third. 

The head of the state’s largest teachers’ union lambasted the state board’s decision Thursday. 

“This is not a board standing up for local control,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “It is a governor-appointed board hiding behind those words to escape their responsibilities to the children of Oklahoma. If our elected leaders do not take their obligations to protect them seriously, our kids are the ones who will suffer — along with our colleagues, our families, and our fellow Oklahomans.”

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