Education , Health

Gov. Stitt announces new school quarantine policy

OKLAHOMA CITY — In an attempt to increase the number of students participating in in-person learning and incentivize mask policies, Gov. Kevin Stitt is allowing Oklahoma school districts the option of side-stepping CDC quarantine recommendations.

Joined by the interim commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, Gov. Stitt announced at a Jan. 12 press conference that Oklahoma school districts will not be required to enforce the CDC-recommended quarantine period for students and staff who are exposed to COVID-19 at school if they are not exhibiting symptoms. Additionally, to adopt such a policy, some safety protocols must be in place during the school day, including a mask mandate and social distancing.

Staff and students who test positive will still be required to isolate, regardless of where they contracted the virus. Additionally, districts will still be required to enforce quarantines for students exposed where masking or distance protocols were not enforced. The new policy does not extend to after-school or extracurricular activities, including sports.

“When all the dust settles and COVID is behind us, I want everybody to know that kids need to be in school. I want kids in school,” Stitt said.

However, current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for people to quarantine after close contact with someone who has tested positive, regardless of whether they show symptoms. That length of time ranges from seven to 14 days, depending on whether an exposed person exhibits symptoms, if they take a COVID-19 test and if so, whether they test negative.

At the time of the announcement, Oklahoma had 40,024 active cases of COVID-19, including 438 in Osage County alone.

According to data released in January by the Oklahoma State Department of Education, more than half of the state’s public school students are minorities. As per data published by the CDC, Indigenous people are almost twice as likely to catch COVID-19 and are four times more likely to be hospitalized for the virus compared to their white neighbors. The rates are similar among black and Hispanic people.  

A spokeswoman confirmed that neither state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister nor the Oklahoma State Department of Education was consulted in the development of the new policy and that neither were invited to speak at the press conference announcing them. In a written statement issued after the press conference, Hofmeister made it clear that she did not agree with the decision.

"The ramifications of the pandemic on education have been challenging and severe,” she said. “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."

Despite being name-checked during the governor’s press conference, the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also took exception to the announcement.

“The data referenced by Gov. Stitt is based on a single study in North Carolina in specific districts that strictly adhered to multiple mitigation strategies,” the organization’s Jan. 13 statement read. “This is not consistent with the current COVID-19 surge in Oklahoma. In order to improve our current situation in Oklahoma, similar community measures that were used in North Carolina are needed, such as a statewide mask mandate, continued social distancing, limitations on indoor gatherings and required mitigation strategies in schools.”   

At least two Osage County schools have already indicated that they are in no rush to adopt the new guidelines.  

When reached on Jan. 12 via email, Daposka Ahnkodapi Headmaster Patrick Martin confirmed that the Osage Nation’s immersion school has not changed its quarantine and closure policies despite the announcement.

Doyle Edwards, superintendent of Hominy Public Schools, released a statement on Jan. 12 that his district was not notified about the new guidelines prior to the governor’s press conference and had not had time to review them.

“We want to provide the best opportunity to keep students in school and to keep Hominy Public School open for in-person learning as long as possible, but we want to make sure we can do so safely,” he said.