Citing the growing body of research that demonstrates schools are not a source of COVID-19 spread, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Tuesday he will ease quarantine mandates that have severely restricted learning in schools.
Under the governor’s new policy, schools that require students to wear masks will not have to quarantine dozens or hundreds of other students and staff who are asymptomatic following an in-school exposure.
“The data continues to show that in-person learning is safe,” Stitt said.
The quarantine exemption will not apply to students exposed to COVID-19 at sports events or other after-school activities.
Previously, a single positive case could result in a two-week quarantine for numerous students or school staff. Schools across Oklahoma have reported that very few individuals quarantined under the prior policy ever subsequently tested positive.
“Schools have been asking for this change because they have been quarantining hundreds of students without seeing a spread of COVID,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters. “This is testament to schools following safety protocols. We know that we can open schools safely.”
Stitt highlighted an American Academy of Pediatrics report on a new study by researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which followed 11 North Carolina school districts that served 90,000 students combined. During the nine weeks covered by the study, 773 people in those schools contracted COVID-19, but just 32 of the infections were acquired within the schools and none of those 32 cases involved transmission from a child to an adult.
“That’s 32 out of 90,000,” Stitt said. “That means 99.96 percent of the students and staff they studied did not catch COVID at school.”
Stitt also noted the American Academy of Pediatrics has warned mass quarantining of students and staff is counterproductive in schools that require mask wearing and social distancing because it artificially creates staff shortages and those quarantined seldom have COVID-19.
“Decisions about school should be made by parents at the dinner table, not at a union hall by people with their own agenda.”
—Gov. Kevin Stitt
Stitt said the new quarantine policy is meant to incentivize mask use in schools, reduce disruption at schools that offer in-person instruction, and encourage districts that have not yet fully reopened to do so. The governor has repeatedly stressed the negative consequences of continued school closures on student learning and family stability.
In many cases, he noted schools that remain closed for in-person learning share borders with similar districts that have successfully reopened.
“Sadly, just a few blocks can make a big difference in the world,” Stitt said. “Students in Broken Arrow were able to go to school for 66 days in the fall semester. The state’s largest high school found a way to get this done. They innovated. They had bold leadership committed to putting students first. Just minutes away at Tulsa Public Schools, their high schoolers haven’t been in the building for 305 days—305 days—all because you live a couple blocks the wrong direction.”
Walters, a longtime classroom teacher, noted that studies show a year of “diminished instruction” can “negatively impact students’ successes throughout their careers.”
It is already estimated that high-school graduation rates will fall as much as nine percentage points this year because of school shutdowns and subpar distance learning processes, he said.
Data suggests just 60 percent of low-income students regularly log in to online instruction, Walters said.
“The long-term impact of our students going another semester without the in-person learning option would be catastrophic—academically, emotionally, and physically,” Walters said.
The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, has been among the most vocal critics of calls to reopen schools. The OEA even opposed reopening after Stitt announced teachers would be given priority for COVID-19 vaccinations as part of the state effort to provide in-person learning across Oklahoma. The union’s leadership has also opposed resumption of state testing that would provide parents concrete measurement of learning losses at each district during COVID-19 shutdowns.
Stitt noted that Oklahoma ranks 9th nationally in COVID-19 vaccinations per capita and teachers age 65 and older will begin receiving vaccinations this week. Officials said other educators with underlying conditions will receive the vaccination as soon as vaccine availability allows.
Stitt said parents should be prioritized in education policy over other interest groups.
“I’m going to continue to fight for Oklahomans to have the right to decide what’s best for their kids,” Stitt said. “Parents need the option to get their kids back in 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’s quarantine policy was quickly attacked by legislative Democrats.
Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, proclaimed Stitt’s quarantine policy “reckless,” saying kids under 15 represented 10 percent of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma “in the weeks before the holidays.”
Fugate also accused Stitt of “blaming the unions.”
Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said Stitt’s quarantine policy “doesn't go far enough.”
“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,” Rosecrants said.
Data from Carnegie Mellon University shows that nearly 85 percent of Oklahomans in all parts of the state already report wearing a mask “most or all of the time while in public,” and the rate is even higher in urban areas, reaching almost 95 percent in Oklahoma County.
Given the extensive research showing that schools can safely reopen and the severe detrimental effect generated by continued school closures, Stitt said he will continue to fight for full reopening.
“Refusing to offer in-person school is jeopardizing our kids’ education. It’s jeopardizing our teachers’ careers,” Stitt said. “And it’s jeopardizing the future of the state of Oklahoma.”