Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt introduced a new policy removing the requirement for students in K-12 schools to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19 as long as the student is not showing symptoms and masking is enforced in a Tuesday press conference.
Stitt said the new policy will help Oklahoma schools open safely and “encourage and reward” masking within schools across the state.
“Moving forward, schools that enforce the use of masks will not have to quarantine potential exposures unless they’re showing symptoms,” Stitt said. “This is what’s best for our students, period. End of story.”
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 40 to 45 percent of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic. In a study by the World Health Organization, mild and asymptomatic cases are more common in children and may be underreported.
Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye said exposed students in situations where masking and social distancing protocols were not followed should still quarantine. The new policy does not apply for exposures during after-school activities including sports, according to Frye.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of continued mitigation strategies while also providing kids the opportunity to thrive in a classroom,” Frye said. “As long as schools are following proper safety procedures, we won’t require them to quarantine automatically because of potential exposures.”
Frye said other states including Missouri, Utah and Ohio have followed suit and have not seen increased outbreaks in school settings. Citing a recent study in Ohio, Frye said students who are close contacts and appropriately masked had rates of COVID-19 that were similar to children with no known exposures in schools.
“As a medical professional, I can tell you that public health is about balance,” Frye said. “In this case, we need to balance the safety of our students, their families and education professionals with other public health factors. Our students' mental, physical and social development are also important concerns to consider.”
Stitt said 66 percent more high school students in Oklahoma City Public Schools have an F in one of their classes as opposed to the previous year. He said 59 percent of their high school students were failing at least one class.
“These kids are struggling, and it’s not their fault,” Stitt said. “They need to be in their classrooms, and they need their teachers.”
Stitt said refusing to offer in-person instruction is “jeopardizing students' education, teachers' careers and the future of the state of Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters said keeping students out of school takes a toll on their mental health and their well-being.
“Studies have shown diminished instruction for even a year can negatively impact student successes throughout their careers,” Walters said. “Studies have shown that graduation rates can drop as much as 9 percent among high school students as a result of these school closures.”
Citing a recent McKinsey report, Walters said a prolonged period of remote learning “dramatically affects” educators, parents and teachers, “from rising rates of depression and anxiety to the loss of student learning.” Walters said data from Curriculum Associates suggests “only 60 percent of low-income students are regularly logging in to online instruction.”
“Schools have been asking for this change because they have been quarantining hundreds of students without seeing a spread of COVID-19,” Walters said. “This is a testament of schools following safety protocols.”
Walters said the long-term impact of students going another semester remotely would be “catastrophic” academically, emotionally and physically.
Citing a recent study in North Carolina from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Stitt said the study followed 11 school districts and 90,000 students and staff participating in in-person instruction. According to Stitt, the study found 773 people acquired COVID-19 with only 32 cases transmitted within the schools.
“The study also found no child-to-adult-within-school transmission,” Stitt said. “Let me be clear, the data continues to show in-person learning is safe.”
Stitt said the idea of keeping students at home until there are zero cases within the community is “absolute nonsense.”
“The American Academy of Pediatrics even says, ‘our data supports the concept that schools can stay open safely even in communities with widespread community transmission,’” Stitt said. “Most of our school districts have been open and many of them return to in-person learning this week. That is absolutely the right call.”
Stitt said the biggest challenge facing many school districts is quarantines. According to Stitt, the American Academy of Pediatrics found requiring students and staff to quarantine when all members were wearing masks is “counterproductive.”
“As evidenced by this data, secondary transmission in the setting of masking is uncommon,” Stitt said. “This policy discounts the benefits of masking and sends a mixed message to the public on the benefits of face coverings.”
According to Frye, there has been “very little” spread of COVID-19 within school settings. He said when safety protocols are followed consistently, schools “have been and will continue to be one of the safest places for our students.”
Citing a Rockefeller Foundation study, Frye said schools and universities instituting regular, rapid turnaround testing, combined with masking and social distancing, experience “extremely low to nonexistent” rates of transmission.
“We want to continue to provide these important tools that are so important for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” Frye said.
Frye said they are working on vaccinating teachers 65 and older starting this week. They will begin vaccinating all teachers as soon as the vaccination supply is available, according to Frye.
“Oklahoma has done an outstanding job administering vaccines quickly across the state, putting us, most recently, in the top 10 in distribution (and) making Oklahoma more competitive to receive large quantities of vaccines,” Frye said.
According to Frye, the amount of COVID-19 tests provided to schools will be doubled to “encourage frequent testing” and to “catch positive cases early.” The supply of masks and PPE will also be increased according to Frye.
Stitt said he believes in “local control” and will continue to fight for Oklahomans to have the “right to decide” to send their kids to school.
“Decisions about school should be made by parents at the dinner table, not at a union hall by people with their own agenda,” Stitt said.
Stitt cited three Democratic lawmakers — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who agreed in-person instruction could be conducted safely with low rates of COVID-19 transmission.
“Even the most liberal people in the country who have locked everything down know going back to school is the right thing to do,” Stitt said. “Oklahomans continue to demand that your local school boards put your kids first.”
According to Stitt, students in Broken Arrow — the largest high school in Oklahoma — were able to go to school for 66 days during the fall semester, while high school students in Tulsa Public Schools have not had access to in-person instruction for 305 days.
“Let’s do the right thing,” Stitt said. “We need to put our students first. We need to get them back in the classroom.”
Correction: This story was updated at 11:38 a.m. Jan. 13 to correct the spelling of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's name.