The recent surge in COVID-19 cases is driving home a reality check: the 2021-22 school year isn’t likely to be normal after all.
Many school leaders are revisiting their back-to-school plans and once again preparing for quarantines and shifts to virtual learning if necessary. But mask requirements, one of the mitigation measures used by many Oklahoma school districts last year, are off the table unless Gov. Kevin Stitt issues an emergency declaration.
Lawmakers tied the hands of local school boards on the issue of masks in schools with Senate Bill 658. When the bill was approved, COVID-19 cases were declining. Oklahoma was averaging about 146 new COVID-19 cases per day, down from a peak of 4,170 in mid-January.
But delta, the more contagious strain of COVID-19, along with lagging levels of vaccine uptake, is fueling the surge. Oklahoma’s seven-day average reached 1,657 new cases on August 3 — more than 11 times what Oklahoma was experiencing in late May. COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their highest levels since February.
On Monday, House Democrats called for a special session to repeal the law.
School leaders are mostly recommending students wear masks at school. Tulsa Public Schools went a step further and on Monday published its safety plan, which states all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, are expected to wear masks consistently while indoors.
Oklahoma’s 229% increase in cases over the past two weeks is the eighth most of any U.S. state or territory. The country as a whole has experienced a 145% increase in COVID-19 cases in that time.
In Newcastle Public Schools, superintendent Melonie Hau is taking another look at the district’s plan, posted in June, because a handful of student athletes tested positive for COVID-19 after a camp.
“We kept it pretty general in terms of isolation and quarantine because, of course, at that time we felt really good about where we were,” she said.
Teachers returning from summer break face the same fears they faced last year, but with fewer mitigation options, though the biggest change is that more residents are vaccinated. More than 1.5 million Oklahomans, or 40%, are fully vaccinated.
However, vaccine uptake among eligible teenagers has been slower. The latest Oklahoma Health Department data shows 20% of 12- to 17-year olds have received at least one dose and 14.2% are fully vaccinated.
Hau said that in compliance with the new law, they will not require masks. Perhaps a bigger problem, she said, is the state health department will not be enforcing quarantines unless a state of emergency is declared.
Stitt in July said he does not intend to make that declaration.
Hau said they will strongly encourage masks and recommend quarantine for exposure but the school can’t enforce it.
The district will instead rely on keeping students in small groups, practice social distancing and use air ionization filters in buildings.
“If our families don’t do their part, now that it’s all about personal responsibility, we could find ourselves shut down for longer periods of time, or sooner,” Hau said. “The variables have changed and our ability to mitigate the virus has changed.”
In the northeast corner of the state, Bluejacket Public Schools Superintendent Shellie Baker is praying for safety for the district’s 215 students and staff.
Last year, the district required masks and followed other guidance such as temperature checks and distancing. Even with those precautions in place, a teacher caught COVID-19 and died following an outbreak at a school basketball game.
Her death, which happened over Christmas break, was eye-opening to the school community.
“We have so many in society who think the virus isn’t real or is a conspiracy theory, and we were able to educate the doubters a little bit,” Baker said.
This year, though, Bluejacket isn’t offering a virtual program, which only a few students used last year. They will encourage vaccines for eligible students and community members and keep some of the cleaning and sanitizing protocols in place.
“This new strain could close us down. We’re still prepping for that. It’s just not the whole conversation like it was last year,” she said.
More than half of Oklahoma’s largest public school districts required masks for students, teachers and staff in the fall of 2020. Those districts did so following the advice of public health agencies.
The authors of Senate Bill 658, Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, and Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, said the legislation was intended to make it more difficult — but not impossible — for school districts to mandate masks.
“I didn’t want mask mandates to be done without a health emergency,” Standridge said. “I’m not a big fan of mask mandates anyway.”
Standridge said he disagrees with the research showing universal mask wearing works to mitigate COVID-19 spread and believes the risk of bacteria on masks should be considered. The CDC has said mask use does not cause bacterial infection.
West pointed out that Moore, where he lives, never had a mask mandate but the city’s COVID rates weren’t worse than in Norman or Oklahoma City, which did.
“I’m not saying they are totally ineffective but I personally believe they are a small part of the equation,” he said, adding that social distancing, personal hygiene and staying home when sick are more effective mitigation measures.
Both West and Standridge expressed confidence that Stitt will listen to public health officials and implement an emergency declaration if necessary.
The recent surge in COVID cases led several health organizations to again recommend children wear masks in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics on July 19 recommended everyone older than 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed that on July 27, recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
The state education and health departments in July issued joint guidance to K-12 schools and higher education institutions, highlighting five key COVID-19 prevention strategies. Number one is universal and correct use of masks.
Oklahoma is one of seven states with a law banning school mask mandates, stripping local school boards of flexibility, according to a map by Burbio, which compiles calendar and policy information for thousands of schools nationwide. In three states, mask requirements are contingent on vaccination status.
Six states mandate masks in all schools, including California and New York, which have two of the four largest school-aged populations. The remaining 34 states leave mask policies up to the school board’s discretion.
Masks became a major flashpoint, splitting communities and leaving school leaders to balance the two sides.
Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, addressed the conflict on the House floor May 26 when debating Senate Bill 658.
“Isn’t the greater concern the spread of disease? No. The liberties of the people are paramount,” he said. “If you have conflict between the local school board and the parents, I’m going to say the rights of the parents trump the local school board.”
Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, in debating against the bill, pointed out that schools are part of a community.
“I think that if you go to school, you should have some reasonable expectation that if there is a global pandemic, that incredibly deadly illness doesn’t just get to run roughshod over everyone,” he said. Masks, and vaccines, protect other people around us, he added. “It’s not just about us.”
The law, which went into effect July 1, left some school-district leaders with questions about what they can and can’t do. For instance, could a teacher require masks in a classroom? The law specifically says a board of education can’t mandate masks, but the state education department on July 22 clarified it would not be authorized for a teacher to set a mandate, the same way a teacher couldn’t have his or her own dress code for students.
What about school buses, which are under a federal order requiring masks be worn by drivers and passengers? Pam Deering, executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, said this is now an area where state law conflicts with a federal order, and schools are dealing with it with guidance from their attorneys.
What if all parents at a school banded together and agreed to have their children wear masks? That’s what Fred Mischler is hoping he can accomplish before his children start back at Belle Isle Middle School in Oklahoma City.
His daughter isn’t old enough to receive a COVID-19 vaccine (the Pfizer version is approved for people 12 and older) and he worries she will contract the virus in school. The issue of masks are more akin to secondhand smoking than the personal responsibility of wearing a motorcycle helmet, Mischler said.
“The kids and especially the people who cannot be vaccinated are not being given enough attention. Their interests and needs are not being put at the highest priority and I’d like that to be more obvious among decision makers,” he said.
He started a Facebook group to gather interest in a self-imposed policy among parents.
“Maybe it will just turn into a support group,” he said. “Our kids will wear a mask and that’s as far as it goes.”
Oklahoma Watch Reporter Paul Monies contributed to this report.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education