Education, Health Care

Stitt opposes school restrictions amidst Democrat outcry

July 26, 2021

Ray Carter

Oklahoma Democratic lawmakers have called on Gov. Kevin Stitt to declare a health emergency following a recent uptick in COVID cases, saying schools should be allowed to mandate mass quarantine of students who may have been exposed.

But Stitt has already said he does not support a repeat of the draconian actions that harmed economic activity and student learning in 2020 and, in some school districts, into 2021.

At a recent press conference, Stitt said he was “not planning on declaring an emergency.”

“This is about personal responsibility,” Stitt said. “This is about freedoms.”

He noted parents who want their child to wear a mask at school can have their child do so.

“The difference is we’re not going to mandate that somebody else has to send their four-year-old to school with a mask or someone else has to get their four-year-old vaccinated,” Stitt said. “I believe that’s where Oklahomans line up on this. This is something that you should make these decisions in consultation with your medical professionals, and I’ve been consistent on that for the entire time.”

Under a new state law enacted this year, Senate Bill 658, a school district’s board of education “shall not” require a vaccination against Coronavirus “as a condition of admittance to or attendance of the school or institution,” or require “a vaccine passport as a condition of admittance,” or implement “a mask mandate for students who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.”

The law allows schools to mandate masks only when the governor has declared a state of emergency. The law passed with overwhelming support in both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature, passing 38-8 in the Oklahoma Senate and 76-18 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

But several Oklahoma House Democrats are now calling on Stitt to declare a state of emergency after officials at some schools, including Broken Arrow, Owasso, and Stillwater, announced they will not quarantine students who have been exposed to COVID-19. Democrats argued physical closure of school sites will be required if students are not required to quarantine at home.

“Our little ones cannot get the vaccine, and they are getting sick in larger numbers with the Delta variant,” said Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa. “We must be able to take the steps necessary to protect the lives of those who cannot protect themselves. School begins soon and, for most, in-person learning is best. To prevent unnecessary shifts to virtual learning, I urge the governor to declare a state of emergency so that our neighborhood schools, hometown hospitals, and local health departments can make the decisions quickly that are right for their towns.”

“We are failing in our responsibility to keep our children safe, which is the most basic responsibility of government,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa. “So next year, rather than quarantine those who have been exposed, we will have to revert to virtual schooling again because our school buildings will have become hazardous environments.”

The Democrats’ demand for declaration of a health emergency comes at a time when state data shows only one active COVID-19 case for every 660 people in Oklahoma— 5,992 active cases in a state with 3,956,971 residents.

State data shows that children younger than 18 have contracted COVID at rates far below their share of the overall population. Just 13.4 percent of all COVID cases recorded in Oklahoma have been individuals younger than 18, but that group comprises 24 percent of the total state population, according to Census figures.

Stitt has also noted that citizens most vulnerable to COVID-19’s worst effects have high rates of vaccination.

“Eighty-five percent of Oklahomans over the age of 65 have received at least one dose,” Stitt said. “I think almost 60 percent of Oklahomans—adult Oklahomans—have received at least one dose. So it’s available for everyone. I trust Oklahomans. We’re going to continue to provide information and be transparent with all of our data. And I encourage Oklahomans to make that decision about their health care with their physicians and their doctors.”

The state’s most recent Weekly Epidemiology and Surveillance Report, which covered July 11 to July 17, showed that since the start of the pandemic 27,575 Oklahomans, or 5.9 percent of all cases, have been hospitalized while testing positive for the virus.

Of those who have tested positive for COVID, 7,454 individuals, or 1.6 percent of all Oklahoma cases, have died. The average age of individuals who died was 74 years, and 1,712 individuals who died with COVID were nursing home residents.

Of those who died while testing positive for COVID-19, the report shows that 52.6 percent also had at least one chronic condition such as heart or circulatory disease, diabetes, lung failure, liver failure, or renal failure.

Over the most-recent seven-day period, 30 states had a higher per-capita rate of COVID deaths than Oklahoma.

More than 400,000 Oklahomans have recovered from COVID-19, which experts say likely means those individuals now have natural immunity to the virus even without vaccination. It is not known how much overlap exists between those who have recovered from COVID-19 and those who have been vaccinated for the virus.

In 2020 and 2021, many schools mandated that large numbers of students were barred from in-person learning and required to quarantine at home following potential exposure to COVID-19. A single positive case could result in a two-week quarantine for numerous students or school staff.

In most instances, school officials reported that very few individuals subjected to quarantine subsequently tested positive for the virus.

Due in part to the lack of in-person instruction and quarantine disruptions caused by schools’ response to COVID-19, academic results in Oklahoma schools are expected to have declined dramatically since 2019. While state testing was conducted in the spring, statewide results have not yet been released. However, one school official recently announced to parents that district-level outcomes were “as bad as I predicted.”

Stitt noted that COVID vaccines are readily available to address COVID concerns.

“Vaccines have been available widely for anybody that wants one in all 77 counties for months and months and months now,” Stitt said. “We led the country in getting those vaccines out.”