High school librarian Nicci Francis managed to avoid COVID-19 last year. 

Even after her husband, a teacher in Piedmont, the district where she also works, and her son tested positive in November, Francis managed to avoid the virus. She credits the safety measures taken by her district.  

Piedmont required masks for all students and staff. It reduced the number of students in its schools with an alternating days schedule for most of the year. Quarantines and isolation were mandatory and enforced.

When schools returned in August, Francis said, it was “full steam” ahead. Like many Oklahoma districts, many precautions taken the previous year were lifted. 

Francis, 46, said she received her vaccination in March. She donned a mask on the first day of school, as recommended by her district. But after seeing few other masked people, she stopped. 

She interacted with hundreds of students in the first few days of school, checking out Chromebooks and supervising students taking virtual or concurrent classes. A headache prompted her to take a COVID-19 test and it came back positive.  

“We made it all last year. We did the right things. We got vaccinated. Wore our masks. Tried to stay distanced from people,” Francis said. 

“And just because there are literally no precautions this year, I made it a week.” 

Her symptoms, which included headache, fatigue, loss of appetite and stomach pain, were mild. She has since recovered and returned to work. 

For many others, the virus has been deadly. A pre-K teacher’s aide in Yukon Public Schools died Sept. 12, school district officials confirmed. A Go Fund Me page set up by her family said Erin Rhodes had been on a ventilator with a collapsed lung due to COVID-19. 

Other recent Oklahoma educator deaths include a 70-year-old Carney elementary teacher named Peggy Hageman, and 59-year-old Connie Tatum, a Stonewall elementary teacher, according to Education Week, a national publication for teachers that has been created a memorial to the educators who’ve died of coronavirus.

Tatum fell ill before returning to school this year and died Aug. 25. It’s unknown whether Rhodes or Hageman, who died Sept. 3, had been in school. 

At least 1,065 current and retired educators and school personnel nationally died of COVID-19 as of Sept. 10, Education Week found. Of those, 334 were active teachers. 

Educators returned to school with a layer of protection unavailable most of last year — the COVID vaccine. But teachers who have experienced breakthrough infections illustrate the limits of personal responsibility. Several teachers told Oklahoma Watch they took the precautions being advised by public health officials but still contracted the virus that has killed nearly 10,000 Oklahomans since 2020. 

An estimated one in four teachers have health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation released last year. 

Oklahoma prioritized educator access to vaccines, opening doses to teachers in late February. It’s unknown what percentage of state teachers are vaccinated but a poll by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, found 87% of its members had received at least one dose. The Oklahoma Education Association is polling its members and plans to release those results soon.

Even if teacher vaccination rates are high, students’ rates are low. The vast majority of Oklahoma’s school-aged children are unvaccinated.

For those under 12, there is no approved vaccine, though one is expected to receive emergency-use approval this fall. Pfizer-BioNTech announced Monday its COVID-19 vaccine has been shown to be safe and effective in children ages 5 to 11. 

Adolescents 12 to 18 years old are eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but they still need parental consent. Only about a quarter of children in that age group were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 13, state Health Department data shows.

Protective Measures Beyond Masks

Public health agencies emphasized the importance of universal masking as students returned to school this year. But districts were hamstrung by Senate Bill 658, signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May, when coronavirus cases were declining. A late-summer surge driven by the delta variant has driven up cases and hospitalizations.  

The law effectively bans mask mandates in schools by limiting when school boards can initiate such a requirement. Districts started the year merely encouraging mask wearing.

Several districts defied the law, starting with Santa Fe South charter school on Aug. 11 and quickly followed by Oklahoma City Public Schools. After the judge placed the law on hold temporarily earlier this month, Edmond, Yukon, Midwest City-Del City, Noble, and Union were among the districts implementing mask mandates. 

Piedmont, where Francis works, briefly brought back mandatory quarantines this year, superintendent James White said, but does not mandate mask wearing. The district of 4,900 students has already surpassed its coronavirus case total for 2020-21. As of Sept. 15, the district reported 27 active cases, down from a semester-high of about 90. 

Last week, the school board voted to move back to recommend quarantines for exposed students. White said not many people had been taking the recommendation. 

Health officials’ guidance on quarantine has loosened since last year. 

In December, schools were told that keeping at home a person who was in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 was “critical to control transmission” and required by state law.  

The state Health Department now only recommends quarantines for exposed students, despite the increased transmissibility of the delta variant. Many districts started the year making quarantines optional. 

In August, guidance to districts issued by the Education Department re-emphasized mandatory quarantines and some districts moved to that model. However, the health department’s stance has not changed, said Keith Reed, deputy commissioner of health.

“We do not have the capacity to be able to enforce such a recommendation, therefore it remains a recommendation,” Reed said Thursday.

‘Teachers Aren’t Being Protected, Neither Are Students’

Another major difference this year is the number of students in school buildings. Although the official student count doesn’t take place until Oct. 1, there are signs more families have chosen in-person school. 

Enrollment is down at Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest online school system. Epic had about 38,000 students as of last week; compared to nearly 60,000 last fall. 

Edmond, for instance, says enrollment in its virtual program is down by about 90 students but overall enrollment in the district is up by more than 1,900 students compared to last year. Similarly, Oklahoma City Public Schools reported 1,000 fewer students in its virtual program, and overall enrollment is up by more than 1,200. 

Last year, many large districts used an alternating days schedule, commonly keeping half of the students at home each day to access school content via distance learning, to reduce potential exposure. 

Oklahoma Watch couldn’t find any using that schedule this year. 

Alternating days schedule is difficult for teachers and parents to manage. Plus, state and federal leaders have pushed for a return to in-person school five days a week. 

For government teacher Aaron Baker, some class sizes have tripled. Baker teaches at Putnam City North High School and avoided the virus for the entire 2020-21 school year. 

When the country ground to a halt in March 2020, he stopped going out to restaurants. He went months without visiting his parents and extended family. 

His classes were almost entirely virtual last fall. District teachers and students returned to the classroom in the spring on an alternating days schedule. 

Baker, 44, was vaccinated, along with his wife and their three teenagers when they became eligible, he said. Like many people, they widened their bubble, vacationing in Gulf Shores, Ala. He and his wife celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary with dinner at a fondue restaurant. 

Still, he masked up in the grocery store and kept out of crowded public spaces. In class, he taught from behind a mask, removing it only to describe the day’s lesson and an occasional sip of water.

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On the eighth day of school, Baker developed a sore throat. He started coughing. A coronavirus test came back positive. 

Over the next few days, isolated at home, he developed many of the classic COVID-19 symptoms: fever, headache, congestion, and a loss of taste. For a self-described foodie, that last one hit hard. 

He wrote a blog post titled “Oklahoma Senate BIll 658 Gave Me COVID-19.”  

Baker was angry at the legislature and Stitt for stripping schools of the ability to mandate masks. When Senate Bill 658 was passed, coronavirus cases were declining and Baker thought schools wouldn’t need masks in the fall. But by August he had changed his mind. 

“I am optimistic enough to hope that they (the legislature) didn’t wish this upon me and others,” he said. “I also wonder if there are legislators who would take their vote back at this point, knowing what we know now.”

House Democrats are attempting to repeal the law, but the legislature has not taken it up. 

Baker’s school district, however, did reverse course. The Putnam City school board voted Sept. 7 to require masks for all students and staff. 

In some districts, widespread teacher absences have led to closings and shifts to distance learning. 

Dickson Public Schools, a district of 1,300 in Ardmore, closed on Aug. 20 and moved students to distance learning for 10 days. More than 10% of staff were out due to COVID when the decision was made, or about 14 of the 135 staff, superintendent Jeff Colclasure said. He declined to say how many were vaccinated but said at least some of the impacted staff members were. 

“We reached a point where we weren’t able to staff effectively,” said Colclasure. “Before delta, we all felt fairly good about where we were and felt like we’d have a normal return to school. I didn’t think it would be like this, certainly not this early.” Dickson reopened on Sept. 7. 

Tulsa Public Schools, too, has had to close some schools due to a lack of staff. 

Jami Cole, a fifth-grade math teacher in Duncan, is recovering from her second round of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. She started feeling tired on the second day of school and that weekend developed a headache and allergy-like symptoms that prompted her to take a test. 

She said she likely contracted the virus during the school’s open house night the Tuesday before school started.

Cole has Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which her immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. It means her risks from COVID-19 are higher than most people. 

And her husband has leukemia, adding to their household risk. 

Her school district doesn’t require masks as it did for most of last year. 

“Teachers aren’t being protected, and neither are students,” Cole said. “I literally feel disposable.”

Cole first contracted COVID-19 in November. When she caught it the second time in August, she was fully vaccinated. Still, she developed a fever of 102 degrees, prompting her doctor to prescribe an antibody infusion. She traveled to a hospital an hour away to receive the infusion, which helped her symptoms improve, though she still gets out of breath easily. 

“The vaccines are great, and the vaccines do what they’re supposed to do. They help keep you out of the hospital. But they’re not keeping people from being sick,” she said. 

She’s the only fifth-grade math teacher in her school and she missed a full week and a half. She returned with a $300 air purifier purchased with her own money.

“Next year, I’m not sure that I’m going to be teaching. That’s kinda what I’m looking at right now, which is just devastating,” said Cole, who moderates a private Facebook group with 62,000 members. 

“I’m not the only one feeling that. Lots of teachers are. A lot of them have said ‘we just felt like we’re sitting ducks. We’re just waiting for us to be diagnosed.’ “

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC

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