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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A group of parents has filed a lawsuit against Stillwater Public Schools, asking the court to declare the district does not have the right to quarantine all students and to require that the district reopen for in-person instruction.

“At this point, the Stillwater community is showing COVID recovery rates of nearly 100% with the largest percentage of reported positive results being asymptomatic,” the lawsuit states. “This is hardly a basis for such a dramatic and unwarranted shift that curtails the fundamental right to a free and public education for Stillwater students. Moreover, it is well known that children are the least likely to be impacted by this disease.”

The Stillwater district is among the schools that have yet to return to full-time, in-person classroom instruction, having gone fully online at the start of the school year. In the lawsuit, the parents say distance learning has contributed to increased depression among children and declining grades.

The lawsuit notes that state law requires schools to provide 1,080 hours of instruction each year, but says the three minor children of plaintiff Andrea Wilson “are only receiving 6 hours a week of classroom instruction from distance learning, and her children are falling behind in their school work.”

At the same time, Wilson’s children “are still meeting in-person for sports activities with the same children they would be sitting with in a school classroom. This contradicts common sense.”

Similarly, the lawsuit says the youngest child of plaintiff Dawndra Berkenbile “attends a daycare on a daily basis” and notes that she serves on the board of the Stillwater Youth Football and Cheer Association “that has approximately 100 Stillwater Public School students playing in their private, non-profit football league.”

In addition, the lawsuit says Berkenbile’s 14-year-old son “is having issues attending online classes because of technical difficulties with their home computers and has not received credit for assignments that he submitted online, but are not showing up in the system. Her son currently is failing three classes.” The lawsuit indicates Berkenbile’s son may not be the only youth failing a class because of technical glitches, noting an email from the son’s football coach revealed that “one-third of the football team had at least one failing grade.”

“There has been a gross dereliction of duty and this Court must immediately act to ensure that the children of the Stillwater public school are no longer ignored, neglected, and failed by those entrusted to educate them,” the lawsuit states.

The parents’ lawsuit notes that of 962 deaths reported at the time of filing among Oklahomans who tested positive for COVID-19, only two were individuals between the ages of five and 17, “neither of which occurred in Payne County.”

“As of the date of filing, OSDH (Oklahoma State Department of Health) has reported 2,149 COVID-19 cases and six (6) deaths in Payne County, representing a mere 0.025% of cases for the entire state of Oklahoma and 0.006% of deaths,” the lawsuit states. “In spite of the proportionately low infection and death rates for the county relative to the state, the Board has adopted the most extreme measures in its response.”

At the time of filing, the lawsuit states there were less than seven COVID-19 hospitalizations in Stillwater and “none of them are children or teachers.”

The lawsuit in Stillwater is just the latest example of parents pushing back against school closures. Shortly after parents in Owasso began a recall petition to oust members of that district’s school board, officials at the Owasso school announced school was reopening.

Other parents around the state have signed petitions and held protests at districts that are not providing in-person schooling.

While school officials have argued that in-person instruction could lead to increased COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and even death among students, staff, and parents, that has not been the case in districts that did reopen.

Stilwell Public Schools in Adair County has provided in-person instruction since Aug. 12, despite the county being in Orange Level 2 at the start of the school year. The Orange Level 2 label applies to counties with COVID-19 rates that exceed 25 per 100,000 population. The Oklahoma State Department of Education has recommended that schools provide no in-person instruction in Orange Level 2 counties.

However, the superintendent of Stilwell Public Schools recently told members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education that the district had only six cases of COVID-19 among students or staff between Aug. 12 and Sept. 24, and most if not all of those cases involved exposure outside the school.

National polling now shows that 80 percent of families with children in public school support allowing the use of taxpayer funds for private-school tuition when public schools do not reopen.

A poll of likely Oklahoma voters, conducted from Aug. 10 to 13 by Cor Strategies on behalf of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, similarly found 63 percent of Oklahoma voters support using taxpayer funds for private-school tuition when a local school district “decides not to hold classes in person.”

Stillwater Public Schools issued a brief statement in response to the parents’ lawsuit.

“Throughout Oklahoma and the nation, parents are genuinely concerned for the education of their children when not receiving instruction through a traditional in-school environment,” the district statement declared. “Every district leader, every board member and every parent involved in these conversations faces an incredible challenge in balancing student academic, social, emotional, and physical well-being during this pandemic. It is disappointing that the pandemic has led to such a situation. Stillwater Public Schools and its Board desire a safe return to full-time in-person instruction, and will continue to thoughtfully consider the important issues raised by these parents’ claims.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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