Ray Carter | August 4, 2020

State mandate could have closed COVID-free schools

Ray Carter

The Oklahoma State Board of Education recently opted against imposing state mandates that dictate how school districts should handle COVID-19 response, including forced closure of schools, and opted instead to provide guidance.

Dover Public Schools Superintendent Max Thomas is among those pleased with the board’s decision.

“We think it’s really important that decisions are made locally,” Thomas said at a recent press conference appearance with Gov. Kevin Stitt. “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.”

Thomas’ suggestion that schools could have been forced to close even with zero cases was not hyperbole. Public data indicate Dover and other school districts with little or no COVID spread in their community might have nonetheless been encouraged or forced to transition to distance learning under a proposed Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) plan.

Under a proposal developed by OSDE staff, school mandates would have been tied to, and fluctuated with, a state Department of Health map that color-codes counties based on per-capita COVID-19 infection rates.

That map colors counties green, yellow, orange, and red based on infection rates. Green counties have rates below 1.43 daily new cases per 100,000 population. In yellow counties, the rate is between 1.43 and 14.39. In orange counties, the rate is greater than 14.39, while red counties have rates above 14.39 plus one of four additional conditions, such as having a low local supply of intensive care unit beds.

Under the OSDE proposal, students and staff at schools in yellow (“low risk”) counties would be required to wear masks in grades four through 12, but distance learning would not have been mandated.

However, the plan also created an “Orange Level 1” and “Orange Level 2” for schools in counties placed in the orange (“moderate risk”) category by the Department of Health. In Level 1, schools would be strongly recommended to transition to alternative schedules or distance learning. At Level 2—defined as an infection rate of more than 25 but fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 population—schools would be required to shift to distance learning.

Kingfisher County, where Dover is located, is currently in the “orange” category on the Oklahoma Department of Health’s COVID map as of July 30. But as of Aug. 4, the Department of Health reports only three people in Dover have contracted COVID-19, and two of the three have recovered from the virus.

If the OSDE plan had been a state mandate, rather than guidance, officials in Dover could have faced a shift to online learning under current county conditions, even though there is only a single active case in the Dover community.

Dover is not alone in that category.

On the Department of Health map issued for the week of July 30, McCurtain County is in orange while LeFlore County is in yellow. The Smithville district includes portions of both counties.

Whitesboro lies roughly 35 miles north of Smithville. Eagletown lies 49 miles to the south of Smithville. Under the Department of Education’s plan, the Smithville and Eagleton schools would have both been encouraged to transition to distance learning after July 30, based on the color-coded map, while Whitesboro would have remained open. 

Oklahoma Department of Health data show no COVID-19 cases in Whitesboro, Smithville, or Eagletown as of Aug. 4.

Similarly, both the July 23 and July 30 maps show Rogers Mills County in the orange (moderate risk) category, which means the county has recorded more than 14.39 daily new cases per 100,000 population. But the Oklahoma Department of Health’s COVID-19 data also shows Roger Mills County achieved that rate with just eight total recorded cases, and six of those individuals have recovered, leaving just two active COVID-19 cases in the county as of Aug. 4.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education lists five school districts serving all or portions of Roger Mills County. Under the Department of Education’s plan, the Leedey, Reydon, Cheyenne, Sweetwater, and Hammon districts could have all been encouraged to transition to distance-learning.

Yet, as of August 4, the Oklahoma Department of Health showed just one COVID-19 case had been recorded in Leedey, and that person had recovered. Cheyenne had seven cases with six recovered. Hammon recorded a single case, which was still active. No cases were recorded for Reydon or Sweetwater. (Leedey is located in neighboring Dewey County but serves part of Rogers Mills County.)

While Thomas praised state deference to local control, the state’s National Education Association (NEA) affiliate has voiced opposition to local control and support for making the OSDE recommendations into state mandates.

After the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted against imposing mandates, Alicia Priest, president of the NEA-affiliate Oklahoma Education Association, issued a statement decrying the decision.

“This is not a board standing up for local control,” Priest said. “It is a governor-appointed board hiding behind those words to escape their responsibilities to the children of Oklahoma. If our leaders do not take their obligations to protect them seriously, our kids are the ones who will suffer—along with our colleagues, our families, and our fellow Oklahomans.”

But Thomas said officials in Dover, which serves about 170 students from Pre-K to 12, take their responsibilities seriously.

“We’re very concerned about our teachers and our students,” Thomas said. “We would not want anything to happen. But also we’re taking all the precautions. We’ve got misters and gel. We’re spacing and rotating. The cafeteria, we’re not in line; the food’s going to be on the table. They’ll come in and sit down; they’ll be spaced out. We’re making all those precautions.”

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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