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 survey recently conducted by the Oklahoma Department of Education found 346 school districts, or 65 percent of the 536 districts surveyed, have some form of mandatory mask policy in place for teachers or both staff and students.

The remaining 35 percent do not mandate mask-wearing. That news has raised the question: Why aren’t the other districts requiring masks during a pandemic?

Data collected by the Oklahoma State Department of Health provides one answer. In many districts that have not mandated mask-wearing, there is little or no COVID-19 spread in the local community, even in places where countywide contagion may have reached the “moderate risk” or “orange” level on the health department’s official state map.

And many of the non-mandate districts are small, allowing them to implement social distancing measures that are not as feasible in more densely populated areas.

“We have 94 students in our entire school—elementary and high school,” said Marsha Cusack, superintendent of Taloga School District in Dewey County. “Our biggest class is 10 kids. We run two separate lunches and we’re spread out. We don’t run a lot of bus routes. Our biggest bus route is 12 kids. And so we feel like we can social distance.”

According to data posted by the Oklahoma State Department of Health on Aug. 27, the same day that members of the State Board of Education discussed the mask survey, 106 school districts that do not mandate the wearing of masks were in communities or zip codes that had three or fewer active COVID-19 cases.

In another 40 districts, there were only four to nine active cases in each of the districts’ surrounding communities.

In a significant number of non-mandate Oklahoma schools, the threat of COVID-19 is currently almost nonexistent.

In 43 districts, there were no active COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 27. And in 14 districts that do not mandate masks, state records show no cases of COVID-19 have ever been recorded since the start of the pandemic last spring.

According to Oklahoma State Department of Education records, many of the districts that have chosen not to make mask-wearing mandatory had student enrollments of 350 or less in the 2019-2020 school year.

Lewetta Hefley, superintendent of the Felt school district in Cimarron County, said countywide rates for COVID-19 do not mean all schools in a county are facing the same challenge.

“We’re 25 miles away from the town that has it,” Hefley said. “Nobody in our town has it.”

When officials at Felt developed their back-to-school plan, Cimarron County had been a “green” county for COVID-19, the state designation for “normal” counties. That changed in the last three weeks due to an outbreak in Boise City. But even that outbreak involved only 10 cases, which appear to have now run their course.

“There’s no pending new cases, and there’s none waiting to be tested, and they’re all recovered,” Hefley said.

The story is similar at Fargo-Gage Public Schools in Ellis County.

“Right now, in the county that we’re in, there’s been a total of six positives since March, and there are no active cases at this time,” said Mike Jones, superintendent of Fargo-Gage Public Schools.

A day after the State Board of Education discussed the school-mask survey, Ellis County’s status was changed to “green” on the state’s COVID-19 map.

Hefley said the Felt district surveyed parents and staff, and all preferred to begin school without a mask mandate.

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education considered a plan that would have mandated mask-wearing and even school closures based on a county’s per-capita COVID-19 rates. However, the board ultimately passed that plan as a set of recommendations, and not a mandate.

Had that proposal been adopted as a statewide mandate, many schools that do not currently mandate masks would have been required to do so and some might have even been required to transition to distance learning.

However, the lack of a mandate does not mean schools do not use masks or are not taking protective measures.

Cusack said the Taloga district has provided masks for all students and other forms of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Probably, 99 percent of our staff wears masks if we’re within six feet of another person,” Cusack said. “We have them on. We pull them up. We just have not said, ‘You’re going to wear them and that’s how it is,’ because we feel like it’s going to be something that you just can’t enforce in a three-year-old program and pre-K.”

Jones said the Fargo-Gage district has provided masks for all students and employees and recommends both groups use them.

“At this time it’s not mandatory that they wear the masks,” Jones said. “If we have a teacher that’s not comfortable being in the room with the kids without the masks, then the teacher wears the mask and requests that the kids wear the masks. We haven’t had any problems there.”

The school checks the temperature of all students before they board a bus or enter a school building each day. The Fargo-Gage district has also invested in sanitation measures for buildings and buses, including electrostatic sprayers. In the lunchroom, students sit only on one side of the tables.

“There’s no one facing each other,” Jones said. “There’s a little more spacing in there.”

Hefley said the Felt district has increased cleaning and, after nearly two weeks in school, there have been no problems.

If an outbreak occurs, officials in non-mask-mandate districts say they are prepared to increase safety measures. But for now, the current system has been working.

Hefley noted Felt’s first and second grade have seven students—combined.

“We already know how to social distance,” Hefley said. “That’s what I tell everybody. We know how to do that. We do that all the time because we have very few kids.”

[The Oklahoma Media Center, launched by Local Media Foundation with financial support from Inasmuch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast, and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is “Changing Course: Education & COVID.” This story is part of that effort. Participating newsrooms are Big If True, the Center for Independent Journalism, CNHI Oklahoma, Curbside Chronicle, Griffin Communications, KFOR, KGOU, KOSU, The Luther Register, NonDoc, Oklahoma City Free Press, Oklahoma Eagle, OU Student Media, Oklahoma Watch, The Frontier, The Oklahoman, StateImpact Oklahoma, Telemundo Oklahoma, the Tulsa World and VNN.]

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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