After the Oklahoma State Board of Education rejected requirements in the Oklahoma School Safety Protocols Thursday, instead choosing to make them recommendations, it will be up to individual districts to decide what measures to put in place as schools start to reopen for the fall.
The proposal presented to the board would have required face masks for all students and adults in counties where COVID-19 is spreading, as determined by the State Department of Health's color-coded map designating risk levels. Some are happy with the board's decision, citing concern for keeping local control among districts' elected board members, while others would have preferred the state implement blanket requirements.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said she was disappointed in the board's 4-3 vote to not approve the plan and that it would mean more concerns for teachers, parents and families.
"We all realize how important it is for schools to reopen," said Hofmeister. "But we are in the midst of a global pandemic with COVID-19 cases sharply rising in our state. I believe it 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."
State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said he agrees with the board's decision to overrule the superintendent's plan.
"Some of the communities have a real low COVID rate and they don't need to be treated like Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and I think that's kind of where that policy came from that Joy Hofmeister was pushing," said Pemberton. "It was more of an Oklahoma City, Tulsa urban policy, because that's what they want to do, and they were going to force that right down the throats of the other 72 or 73 rural counties. We're smart enough to make decisions for our own schools with our own elected officials."
Many districts will be offering virtual education, in addition to having students return to the classroom, and giving parents the option of whether to keep their kids home or send them to school. Not everyone is on board with school starting back up, though. Dell Barnes, Cherokee County Democratic Party vice chair, hopes districts will consider postponing start dates to ease the strain on health systems and allow more time for schools and organizations to gather personal protective equipment.
"Returning to the classroom will require responsible parties to take active roles in protecting public health: compelling mask compliance, encouraging hand-washing, sanitizing surfaces, and maintaining social distancing protocols," said Barnes. "The most responsible thing was a statewide quarantine earlier this year; we wouldn't have to be making so many worrisome decisions this fall if that had happened."
The state' recommends that students in Pre-K through 12th grade wear masks, and that Pre-K through third-grade students be allowed to take them off once they're in the classroom. It's recommended that in areas with higher rates of positive cases, all students and teachers wear masks all day, except for during meals and physical education.
Justin Kennedy, Cherokee County Young Republicans chair, agrees with Pemberton and the board that decisions are best left to local communities.
"Absolutely should be up to the local school board," he said. "They are the most connected to the students and parents. I would think they would be the most informed about the local situation and expectations of their students' parents."
It appears many of the parents in Cherokee County do not feel comfortable with their students returning to school, although some enjoy having the choice of distance learning. The Tahlequah Daily Press asked readers in a Facebook Saturday Forum whether they felt ready to send their children back to school.
"No, I feel sending kids back to school is a very poor choice," said Joie Dodge. "I know not everyone can elect the virtual school. However, we are doing virtual school. We have already set a schedule; he will do classroom work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day."
Laura Harlen said her kid wants to go back to school.
"She learns better that way," she said. "The online education done in the spring was nothing compared to in-class learning. Don't get me wrong: We were all trying to get through it together, and I don't fault the school system or the teachers."
Elizabeth Wulf said there is not a one-size-fits-all situation.
"My husband and I are both immune-suppressed and have decided the first semester will be online," said Wulf. "We will re-evaluate toward the end of 2020, and with all hope, return to traditional learning. I am very impressed with the work the Tahlequah school district has done to ensure the safety of our children and would feel safe allowing my boys to return if we were not immune-suppressed."
Heather Brammer is scared to send her child back, but it is a conflicting decision because she will be a senior this year.
"The kids deserve to get a year, but I recognize that that's not the reality we are in now," she wrote. "I feel bad for last year's seniors. But at least they only missed a couple months of their senior year. These kids probably won't even get one. If everyone would have just quit arguing about masks being some political agenda and acted like actual adults about this situation, we possibly wouldn't be forced to make these decisions."
In an online poll, the Daily Press asked Cherokee County parents if they feel comfortable sending their child back to school this fall. Out of 160 respondents, 90 people said they were "not at all comfortable"; 25 readers answered "not especially comfortable"; 24 respondents said "yes, definitely comfortable"; 15 people answered "somewhat comfortable"; and six were undecided.
State Rep. Matt Meredith and County Libertarian Party Chair Shannon Grimes could not be reached by press time.