State school board votes to let school districts decide COVID-19 safety protocols

OKLAHOMA CITY — In a split 4-3 vote at its July 23 meeting, the Oklahoma Board of Education decided not to issue mandatory COVID-19 safety protocols to school districts.

Citing a desire to leave the decision up to local school boards, the proposal approved by the board is instead “strongly recommended” through at least Sept. 30, contingent upon continued public health conditions.  

“We’re talking about top-down, and that’s not what Oklahoma and what this nation is all about,” board member Estela Hernandez said. “It’s about trusting our local boards to do what they’re intended to do.”

As presented, the proposal includes a five-level color coded alert system similar to the one rolled out by the Oklahoma State Department of Health based on the number of cases per capita within a county.

School districts that span two or more counties, such as Skiatook, Ponca City and Bartlesville, would use the level for the county in which their administration building is located.

For example, schools in a green or yellow county, which would be the counties with the lowest per capita caseloads, would be expected to have in-person classes. Schools in an orange level 1 county would be urged to use an alternate instruction schedule, while those in an orange level 2 or a red county would need to go to either mostly or all distance learning.

The proposal also calls for a mask mandate for students, teachers and staff at all levels except green. Exemptions are included for people who cannot wear a mask due to medical reasons or who rely on lip reading. However, the recommendation instead calls for them to wear a clear face shield.

At the time of the state school board’s meeting, Osage County and all of its surrounding counties but one were classified as yellow, which means school districts are encouraged to have slightly less stringent mask requirements for students in third grade and under. It also means that districts are encouraged to limit the number of public events at their campuses.

The lone exception was Tulsa County, which would fall under orange Level 1, or moderate risk. At that level, districts are encouraged to make schedule accommodations to limit the number of students in the building in order to facilitate social distancing. District facilities would not be available for any extracurriculars, including sports, if social distancing cannot be observed.

At the time of the meeting, only three counties statewide met the threshold for orange level 2 and none met the threshold for red.

Districts also have the option to implement more stringent measures as needed, such as Oklahoma City Public Schools’ decision to start the 2020-2021 school year all online.

Hernandez, Bill Flanagan, Brian Bobek and Jennifer Monies voted in favor of making the protocols advisory rather than mandatory.

“We need to be putting out guidance to districts to help make decisions, but ultimately, they should be making this call,” Monies said.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, Carlisha Williams-Bradley and Kurt Bollenbach voted no. An attempt to reconsider the vote and have individual parts of the proposal be made mandatory was unsuccessful.

“Today’s vote was very disappointing and one that likely will stoke more concerns for teachers, parents and families with a new school year only weeks away,” Hofmeister said after the meeting. “We all realize how important it is for schools to reopen. But we are in the midst of a global pandemic with COVID-19 cases sharply rising in our state. I believe it is entirely appropriate that the state board establish a floor of recommended and required protocols to ensure a safer environment for all in the school community – teachers, staff and students.

“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. In the meantime, the Oklahoma State Department of Education will continue working to secure the PPE our schools need.”