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.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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Starting the 2020-2021 school year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Oklahoma’s largest districts decided to shutter all in-person learning and go fully online.

The Moore Public School district chose a different route and was instead one of the largest districts to provide full-time in-person instruction from day one. Moore’s subsequent experience contradicts the doomsday predictions of those who said classrooms would become “super spreaders” of the virus.

“Our data is showing that students are not transmitting it here at school,” said Robert Romines, superintendent of Moore Public Schools. “They’re getting it outside.”

Since Aug. 13, Moore has offered full-time in-person instruction as an option for district students. Through the beginning of November, the district has had only 349 students and staff test positive for COVID-19. That represents just 1.3 percent of the roughly 26,700 individuals—24,000 students and 2,700 employees—in the Moore district.

The number of active cases as of Nov. 2 stood at just 38, or a little over one-tenth of 1 percent of the district population, while the other 311 cases have recovered and are now “back in school,” Romines said.

Following health guidance, the Moore school quarantines all students and staff who are, for a certain amount of time, within a six-foot radius of an individual who tests positive for COVID-19. Romines estimated that “probably 99 percent” of children who have been quarantined because of that six-foot rule “are coming back with negative results.”

That so many students could have been exposed without catching the virus is reassuring to district officials and runs counter to the fears of many citizens when school resumed in August.

“They’re coming back with negative results and healthy,” Romines said.

In safely reopening, Moore has avoided much of the public upheaval that other schools have faced when officials chose not to reopen. The Owasso school district opted to reopen for in-person instruction only after parents began discussing a recall election for school board members. In Stillwater, parents have sued the district over its refusal to provide full-time in-person instruction as an option. In other districts, hundreds of parents have signed petitions urging that the schools reopen for full-time in-person instruction.

Just as importantly, Romines said reopening has benefited students. While school officials transitioned quickly to online learning for the final nine weeks of the 2019-2020 school year due to the state-ordered shutdown, Romines said the service could not replace the education and environment students would have otherwise experienced.

“At the end of the day, we still lost,” Romines said. “We lost some academic pieces with our littles and then all the way up to high school. That was another reason why we felt the need to get our kids back mid-August so that we could start to make up for the gaps that we lost from March to May and then of course through the summer.”

He also said there is a strong socio-emotional, mental-health aspect that is often overlooked.

“What we’ve found with students being gone from spring break through August, most students did not fare well with being at home and secluded,” Romines said. “The relationship piece is just very, very important.”

He said the district has taken numerous proactive steps to address COVID-19 concerns. Those actions include hiring 30 nurses so each school site has at least one nurse and spending $1.4 million on an ionization filtration system at all sites, which research indicates helps reduce the spread of COVID-19 and is shown to reduce allergy problems and transmission of the flu virus.

The school does have a virtual option that serves families concerned about COVID-19, and that option also benefits students who are temporarily quarantined or those sidelined by another illness, surgery, or similar life event.

However, state interference almost prevented Moore’s successful reopening. In July, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister unveiled a plan that would have mandated school closures anytime a county’s COVID-19 infection rate exceeded 25 per 100,000 population, with closure and transition to distance learning strongly recommended in counties where infection rates topped 14.39 cases per 100,000 population.

The State Board of Education opted to instead approve that plan as guidance, but not as a mandate. The plan was so broad data soon showed it would have forced the physical closure of school sites in many communities with little or no COVID-19 infection.

Had that initial plan gone into effect, it is likely Moore schools would have been closed to in-person instruction for much of the current school year. A county map maintained by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association shows that Moore and hundreds of other districts, located in the majority of Oklahoma counties, would have been barred from providing in-person instruction as of data posted on Oct. 29 because those schools are located in counties with more than 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population.

Moore may be the largest district to safely reopen in a county where school closures would have been ordered under the proposed plan, but it’s not the only district to defy predictions of disaster.

In late September, the superintendent of Stilwell Public Schools in Adair County discussed that district’s experience with COVID-19. Despite opening school in August at a time when per-capita cases exceeded the 25-per-100,000 threshold, there were only six positive cases of COVID-19 at Stilwell schools from Aug. 12 to late September. None of the six contracted the virus while at school.

Even with those positive results, some officials continue to object that local school officials retain authority to devise COVID-19 responses at the local level. The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy recently launched a petition effort urging the State Board of Education to partially reconsider its earlier decision not to impose state COVID-19 mandates.

“We ask that the Oklahoma State Board of Education reverse its decision and implement a statewide masking policy for students, teachers, and administrators during in-person schooling,” the petition states.

The organization says about 20 percent of local school districts do not currently have a masking policy in place.

In August, a survey released by the Oklahoma State Department of Education found about 35 percent of 536 districts surveyed did not mandate mask-wearing at that time. Yet most of those districts were in rural communities that had little or no COVID-19 spread at the time. Also, many of the “non-mask” districts had very small student populations and could incorporate social-distancing safeguards that were less feasible in urban schools, and students and staff at many districts wore masks even without an official mandate.

For his part, Romines is proud of how his district has responded, saying the benefits of in-person instruction are substantial.

“The virtual component, I think that fits the need of some of our students. I really do. You’ve got students that can work at their own pace and they’re fine with being at home and their individual cohorts,” Romines said. “But for the masses, I think the mental-health component and the academic piece is something that you cannot manage through a virtual platform. I could tell you story after story of things that have been caught with students as far as the mental-health component and the academic component. If we weren’t in-person, we would have a different set of circumstances and tragedies on our hands.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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