Ray Carter | August 18, 2022
Data backs board's opposition to school closure mandate
From July 2020 to July 2021, Oklahoma’s population growth outpaced most of the country thanks in part to people moving into the state.
Officials attribute much of that migration to the lack of COVID restrictions and, in many cases, say the lack of widespread school closures was one factor that drew families here.
“I personally had no less than four families move here for that specific reason,” said Monty Strickland, 2021 president for MLSOK, an organization of Realtors. “Three were from California and one was from Chicago. They felt like their kids were not performing at the level that they should. They felt like they were regressing, not only academically, but socially. And they felt like they needed to make a change, so that’s what they did.”
Strickland said the families did not come to Oklahoma because of an employment opportunity, but primarily because of in-person schooling.
“Truly, that was the number one reason,” Strickland said. “I think most of them were able to telecommute for work.”
Oklahoma’s experience with school closures could have taken a much different path
But Oklahomans came closer than many realize to taking the path trod by officials in other states that imposed widespread, mandatory closure of schools for prolonged periods of time.
In July 2020, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister unveiled a plan with mandates that, if maintained, could have required school closures across most of Oklahoma for much of the following two years according to state data.
Under Hofmeister’s proposal, when county COVID rates exceeded 14.39 cases per 100,000 population, schools in that county would have been “strongly recommended” to transition to alternative schedules or distance learning “to reduce the number of individuals in school buildings and ensure greater social distancing.”
When rates exceeded 25 cases per 100,000 population in a county, the plan stated that districts in that county “must transition to distance learning until community transmission declines” to less than 14.39 cases per 100,000 population.
The State Board of Education rejected Hofmeister’s proposed mandates, leaving closures up to local officials. The board’s decision was handed down by a narrow 4-3 margin.
Rob Crissinger, executive director of communication for the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), said Hofmeister’s proposed mandates were “always set to expire Sept. 30, 2020,” meaning they would have impacted schools for less than 10 weeks.
But various groups continued to lobby the State Board of Education in subsequent months to reverse course on its anti-mandate stance, and jurisdictions that imposed mandates in other states were often slow to remove them. In one particularly high-profile example, President Joe Biden is currently expected to extend the federal COVID-19 public health emergency again, potentially into early 2023. That emergency has been in effect since January 2020.
Had the state board’s vote gone the other way and Hofmeister’s plan been left in place past the original Sept. 30, 2020, expiration, Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) archives of per-capita COVID infection rates by county from Sept. 24, 2020 to March 1, 2022 indicate schools could have been strongly encouraged to close for in-person learning throughout most of the state for the majority of that 76-week period.
(OSDH has removed some of these data from its website, but they can still be accessed through the Internet Archive website.)
In fact, current OSDH data indicates the four-week COVID rate in nearly every county in Oklahoma today still exceeds the per-capita triggers contained in Hofmeister’s 2020 proposal.
OSDH data shows that every county in Oklahoma spent more than half of the 76-week period from Sept. 24, 2020, to March 1, 2022, in the per-capita category in which closure was at least strongly encouraged under Hofmeister’s plan.
The three counties that would have been most impacted if the plan had been adopted and left in place were Ottawa County, which exceeded the cutoff for 65 of the 76 weeks; Carter County, which exceeded the cutoff for 62 weeks; and Comanche County, which exceeded the rate for recommended school closures for 60 weeks.
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Ottawa County is home to seven school districts: Turkey Ford, Wyandotte, Quapaw, Commerce, Miami, Afton and Fairland.
In Carter County, the school districts that could have faced near-constant closure included Zaneis, Ardmore, Springer, Plainview, Lone Grove, Wilson, Healdton, Fox, and Dickson.
OSDE lists 11 districts in Comanche County that might have faced potential closure for more than a year: Flower Mound, Bishop, Cache, Indiahoma, Sterling, Geronimo, Lawton, Fletcher, Elgin, Chattanooga, and Comanche Academy.
State Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, a former teacher whose district includes Comanche County, said the residents of her district are pleased school officials were allowed to maintain in-person instruction rather than shift to constant online learning, and noted local school officials went to great lengths to achieve that goal.
“It was just really exciting to be able to tell superintendents, ‘Thank you for keeping our schools open so our kids can continue to learn,’” said Hasenbeck, R-Elgin.
While some counties would have been especially hard-hit by prolonged use of Hofmeister’s school COVID-closure proposal, all public schools could have faced significant impact, based on OSDH data.
Per-capita infection rates exceeded the cutoff proposed by Hofmeister–14.39 cases per 100,000 population–for anywhere from 41 to 65 weeks in all Oklahoma counties from Sept. 24, 2020, to March 1, 2022. The closure weeks were mostly during the school year, but also included some weeks during summer months when many schools provided in-person tutoring to help students catch up from COVID learning loss.
OSDH data shows the vast majority of Oklahoma school districts might have been encouraged to cease in-person learning for months at a time.
From Sept. 24, 2020, to Feb. 25, 2021, all schools in at least 48 counties, or 62 percent of Oklahoma counties, were operating amidst per-capita COVID rates that prompted strong encouragement to close under Hofmeister’s plan.
From Oct. 8, 2020, to Feb. 11, 2021, schools in at least 70 of Oklahoma 77 counties would have been encouraged to cease in-person learning. From Nov. 5, 2020, to Feb. 4, 2021, schools in at least 76 counties—and for several weeks every county in the state—operated amidst COVID rates that surpassed the levels leading to potential closure under Hofmeister’s plan.
While COVID was a top-of-mind concern in the 2020-2021 school year, the limits contained in Hofmeister’s proposal would have also made COVID closures routine if imposed in the following 2021-2022 school year.
Schools in an overwhelming majority of Oklahoma counties might have started the 2021-2022 school year operating without in-person instruction under an extension of Hofmeister’s plan. The week of July 27, 2021, there were 63 counties (82 percent) that exceeded the 14.39 per-capita infection-rate threshold and that share rose to 76 counties (99 percent) by the week of Aug. 31, 2021.
From Aug. 31, 2021, to March 1, 2022, schools in a majority of counties would have been strongly encouraged, or mandated, to cease in-person instruction under the limits contained in Hofmeister’s summer 2020 plan.
For five consecutive weeks from Jan. 11 to Feb. 8, 2022, schools in all 77 counties would have been impacted.
Because a rate of 14.39 daily new cases per 100,000 population translates to just 0.01439 percent of residents, some low-population counties repeatedly exceeded that threshold even when very few actual cases of COVID existed locally.
For example, the week of Sept. 14, 2021, Oklahoma State Department of Health records show that Cimarron County had a per-capita COVID rate of 26.7 per 100,000, which would have resulted in mandatory closure under Hofmeister’s plan. But OSDH records show Cimarron County had a seven-day case count of only four at that time.
That same week Beaver County had a per-capita rate of 29.5 COVID cases per 100,000 population and, under the restrictions in Hofmeister’s plan, would have seen all school districts forced to close for in-person instruction. Yet OSDH records show the county had a seven-day case count of just 11 that week.
Hasenbeck said the proposed per-capita cutoffs were never practical for many rural areas.
“Cotton County is part of my district,” Hasenbeck said. “You have to drive a long way to find your neighbor in some parts of Cotton County. And so having those types of population-density, disease-per-capita mandates make decisions affecting schoolchildren, that wasn’t really applicable in all areas of rural Oklahoma. The local control, the local superintendents figuring out what’s right for their families, is always the way to go.”
Even without mandatory mass school closures, COVID learning loss a problem
The length of time schools were closed for in-person instruction has a strong correlation with learning loss.
A May 2022 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reviewed testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools in 49 states and concluded “that the shifts to remote or hybrid instruction during 2020-21 had profound consequences for student achievement. In districts that went remote, achievement growth was lower for all subgroups, but especially for students attending high-poverty schools. In areas that remained in person, there were still modest losses in achievement, but there was no widening of gaps between high and low-poverty schools in math (and less widening in reading).”
Outcomes in Oklahoma schools bolster those conclusions. The Tulsa and Oklahoma City public-school districts remained closed for in-person instruction far longer than most districts and ultimately came closest to following the directives proposed in Hofmeister’s July 2020 plan. Earlier this summer, Gov. Kevin Stitt—who was a staunch advocate for keeping schools open—noted that Tulsa schools stayed closed longer than most schools in Oklahoma, “over 300 consecutive days.”
According to a learning-loss calculator developed by researchers at the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, students in the Tulsa district lost an average of 18 weeks of learning in math and 17 weeks of learning in reading, tied in part to the cessation of in-person instruction during COVID. In the Oklahoma City district, students lost an average of 19 weeks of learning in math and 18 weeks of learning in reading.
However, in part because the State Board of Education allowed local school officials to control closure decisions, most Oklahoma districts remained open throughout the pandemic, although many short-term closures still occurred due to insufficient staffing when COVID infections surged among adult staff.
Even with a much lower rate of school closures than what might have happened otherwise, significant learning loss still occurred across Oklahoma, giving a glimpse of how severe the situation would have been had prolonged closures been the norm.
In the 2018-2019 school year, prior to COVID, state testing results showed that 33 percent of Oklahoma students scored proficient or better in all grades and subjects tested statewide. In the 2020-2021 school year, that figure declined to just 24 percent.
State Board members stand by their decision
When the State Board of Education decided against imposing school-closure mandates, the four members who cast their votes in opposition to statewide mandates encountered vocal backlash.
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy even paid for billboard advertising that included photos of each member of the board and declared they were “Endangering Teachers for Politics.”
Following the state board’s July 2020 vote, Hofmeister issued a statement calling the group’s decision “very disappointing” and declared her proposal was “a floor of recommended and required protocols to ensure a safer environment for all in the school community – teachers, staff and students.”
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs sought comment from Hofmeister for this article, asking if she still believes her proposed closure mandates were justified, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. Other than the brief statement from Crissinger, none was provided.
Crissinger suggested the closure mandates would not have been extended past Sept. 30, 2020, covering only about 10 weeks in 2020, and said that meant prolonged school closures past that point “would never have happened.”
State board members who felt their decision was the right one in 2020 believe so even more strongly knowing what they know today.
“I one-hundred percent stand behind the decision allowing local districts to make the call,” said Brian Bobek, the state school board member who originally made the motion to approve Hofmeister’s plan as simple guidance, not as a mandate.
“As the mom of young kids, I know how critical it was to have students in school during the pandemic,” said State Board of Education member Jennifer Monies. “I feel incredibly lucky that my kids were able to attend a public charter school that largely remained safely open throughout the pandemic and gave parents a choice to be in-person or online based on their own personal family risks.
“Local communities are incredibly different across Oklahoma,” Monies continued, “and I continue to think local school boards and parents are best to decide what is best for the kids in their community.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.