Ray Carter | August 24, 2020

School shutdowns urged despite local COVID-19 rates

Ray Carter

A group of House Democrats is urging the Oklahoma State Board of Education to mandate the closure of schools in counties with COVID-19 rates above a certain threshold. But the lawmakers’ recommendation comes as county-level COVID-19 rates continue to swing wildly from week to week and highlight the problems created by tying school-shutdown orders to county rates that often do not reflect local community conditions.

“Schools across the state have begun to reopen with mixed results and mixed responses,” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano, a Tulsa Democrat who was identified as the primary author of the letter. “Each day we read of newly confirmed cases tied to school buildings across our state. Schools are doing their level best to manage this crisis and continue to educate our children. We applaud them. Now they need our support, and they need us to shoulder this responsibility with them.”

“I believe that this pandemic calls on all of us to put our best effort forward to defeat it,” said Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman. “That best effort is a statewide response.”

The letter was signed by seven Democratic lawmakers and urged the Oklahoma State Board of Education to impose top-down school-closure mandates from the state level. Those signing the letter included Provenzano, Rep. Kelly Albright of Midwest City, Rep. Andy Fugate of Oklahoma City, Rep. Monroe Nichols of Tulsa, Rep. Trish Ranson of Stillwater, Rosecrants, and Rep. John Waldron of Tulsa.

Under a proposal developed by staff at the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), school-closure mandates would have been tied to a state Department of Health map that color-codes counties based on per-capita COVID-19 infection rates.

Under the OSDE proposal, students and staff at schools in “Orange Level 1” counties, those with 14.39 daily new cases per 100,000 population, would have been strongly encouraged to transition to alternative schedules or distance learning. Schools in “Orange Level 2” counties, defined as those with an infection rate of more than 25 but fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 population, would have been required to shut down and transition entirely to distance learning.

However, the State Board of Education decided not to mandate closures, and instead offered that plan as nonbinding guidance.

In their letter, the Democrats noted that a recent survey conducted by The Oklahoman and StateImpact found that only six of 136 districts in counties at Orange Level 2 or higher chose to start the school year with distance learning.

However, had the OSDE plan been imposed as a mandate, state data show many school districts could have been forced to close despite having very little local COVID-19 spread.

The week of August 13, Latimer County had a reported infection rate of 26.95 people per 100,000 population, clearing the “Orange Level 2” threshold that would have mandated school closures.

The closure order would have affected four districts that include portions of Latimer County—Wilburton, Red Oak, Buffalo Valley, and Panola.

But a week later, the Aug. 20 map released by the Oklahoma Department of Health showed Latimer County was back in the “yellow” category, meaning it had a countywide infection rate below 14.39 per 100,000.

In the towns housing school sites in Latimer County, the raw number of COVID-19 cases remained very low just a week after the countywide figure would have triggered school closures under the OSDE plan.

The town of Wilburton had just four active COVID-19 cases, according to Department of Health data posted as of Aug. 24. Red Oak had four active cases. Talihina, where the Buffalo Valley district is located, had seven active cases. No cases were recorded in the Panola zip code.

Even in counties with per-capita COVID-19 rates well above other counties in Oklahoma, individual towns and schools had virtually no local spread. The week of July 30, Jackson County had an infection rate of 91.62 per 100,000 citizens. Yet three weeks later, Jackson County was in the “yellow” category with less than 14.39 daily new cases per 100,000 population. As of Aug. 24, there were 41 active COVID-19 cases in Jackson County.

The numbers in specific communities in Jackson County were even lower. Jackson County has four public school districts located in three communities: Altus, Duke, and Olustee. As of Aug. 24, there were 37 active COVID-19 cases in Altus, one active case in Olustee, and none recorded in the zip code for Duke.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in April, the Duke zip code has recorded only four total cases of COVID-19 while Olustee has had 16 total cases across the four-plus month period.

Over the past four weeks, Tillman County has shifted from an “orange” level in which closure would have been encouraged to a “green” level where the OSDE plan only recommends, but does not require, mask-wearing for staff and older students. Four districts serve portions of Tillman County and would have faced dramatic shifts in state mandates over the past month had the OSDE plan been imposed: Davidson, Tipton, Frederick, and Grandfield.

One reason for the wild week-to-week shifts in county status is that the threshold for “orange” status is so low—a positive test by less than two-tenths of 1 percent of a county’s population—that many lower-population counties in rural areas clear it with only a literal handful of cases. In some instances, schools could have been ordered to close under the OSDE plan even though there were no COVID-19 cases in a local community.

In 39 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, a COVID-19 diagnosis for three or fewer individuals can elevate the entire county’s daily infection rate to the “moderate risk” (orange) level.

On July 23, there were 15 “orange” counties in Oklahoma. By July 30, that number rose to 32, then dropped to 23 counties the week of Aug. 6. The number of “orange” counties then rose to 27 on Aug. 13, and then 30 on Aug. 20, with many counties shifting back and forth between color-coded threat levels along the way.

Earlier this month, Dover Public Schools Superintendent Max Thomas praised state officials for leaving closure decisions up to local officials. Kingfisher County, where Dover is located, was in the “orange” category on the Oklahoma Department of Health’s COVID map as of July 30. But by Aug. 4, the Department of Health reported there was only one active case of COVID-19 in Dover.

“We think it’s really important that decisions are made locally,” Thomas said. “If I have zero cases, it’s real important that my school board and administration make decisions on what’s best for our staff and students.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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