OKLAHOMA CITY -- Districts can skip the mandatory two-week quarantine for teachers and students as long as they're following COVID-19 safety protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing, health officials said Tuesday.

While the mandatory quarantine will still be required for those who test positive for COVID-19, for the first time, the students and teachers who were potentially exposed can remain in school -- as long as they're not exhibiting any symptoms and their districts are following proper COVID-19 safety procedures, said Dr. Lance Frye, the state's interim commissioner of health.

The policy shift comes as districts continue to grapple with how to balance in-person instruction while implementing COVID-19 exposure quarantines.

At-home quarantines have sidelined teachers and students who never tested positive for the deadly virus and disrupted learning for hundreds of children, state leaders said.

"Today, we're announcing a new policy that will help us keep schools open safely," said Gov. Kevin Stitt. "It will also help encourage and reward mask wearing in schools across the state. Moving forward, schools that enforce the use of masks will not have to quarantine students that were potentially exposed to COVID-19 unless they are showing symptoms."

Officials must continue to quarantine in districts where masking and distancing protocols are not being followed, Frye said.

He said the new policy also requires that the COVID-19 exposure occur in a classroom setting. Students and faculty exposed to the virus during after-school activities or sporting events will still be required to quarantine for two weeks.

The new guidance is aimed at keeping students and staff in the classroom as the state works "aggressively" to get teachers 65 and older vaccinated against the deadly virus, Frye said. Remaining teachers and staff will be vaccinated when supply allows.

Frye said other states have implemented similar policies and aren't seeing increased outbreaks in school settings.

Ryan Walters, the state's secretary of education, said teachers and students want to remain in the classroom.

He said schools have asked for the change because they've been quarantining hundreds of students without seeing any increased spread of COVID-19.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association, said school leaders were still waiting for formal language on the change in guidance Tuesday afternoon, but expect the new guidance will be optional.

"I'm sure we'll have some districts who choose to adopt the new quarantining policy, and we will have some that will decide to stay with the existing policy," he said.

He said the No. 1 hindrance to districts that have tried to hold in-person classes has been staff quarantines.

"We have many school leaders that have been watching other states as they have changed guidance on quarantining that is very similar to what the governor announced today," he said. "I think the most important thing for our school leaders to do is to continue to have conversations with local health leaders, teachers and staff along with their community about what's best for their schools."

Most Oklahoma districts do require students to wear masks in the classroom, he said.

Some have requirements by policy while others have implemented masking rules through administrative procedure rather than a school board vote.

"I'm happy to hear the governor agrees that a mask mandate works for school populations," said state Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, in a statement.

"I encourage him to issue a statewide mask mandate as our schools are part of our communities. Everyone -- students, teachers and staff -- deserves a safe working environment."

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said that while he applauds the effort of Stitt to focus on how to keep students in school, he's concerned that teachers weren't consulted about the policy change.

"While we all agree that in-person learning is the best way for children to learn, this policy doesn't go far enough to ensure the safety of teachers, students and staff," he said. "I urge the governor to call for a mask mandate, which is proven to be the best way to mitigate the spread of this virus, inside and outside of our schools."

Alicia Priest, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said Stitt's remarks are confusing.

"The governor says schools are safe, but what is he doing to ensure that?" she asked.

"He calls for no quarantining when there is a mask policy but won't demand strong mask policies. He cherry picks data instead of holistically tackling the pandemic."

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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