Quarantining after a COVID-19 exposure will now be optional in Oklahoma classrooms if students and teachers are wearing a mask.
The state’s new policy was announced by Gov. Kevin Stitt in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
It will incentivize mask wearing and keep more kids in the classroom when people who test positive for COVID-19 are discovered in schools, Stitt said.
“This is what’s best for our students period,” he said. “End of story.”
Isolation will still be required for students who test positive and students exposed can still choose to quarantine at home.
Stitt blamed teachers unions like the Oklahoma Education Association for what he says is a lack of districts coming back for in person schooling.
“Decisions about school should be made by parents at the dinner table,” Stitt said. “Not at a union hall by people with their own agenda.”
More than 90% of Oklahoma school districts had some in person schooling last fall, far more than many parts of the country.
OEA President Alicia Priest panned Stitt’s message and the new guidelines in a lengthy statement put out after the press conference.
“The governor says schools are safe, but what is he doing to ensure that? Priest wrote. “He calls for no quarantining when there is a mask policy but won’t demand strong mask policies. He cherry picks data instead of holistically tackling the pandemic.”
The new quarantine policy defies current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and previous guidelines from the state health department.
Those federal guidelines – widely followed by schools that are in-person around the country and in Oklahoma – say that when a child is within six feet of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 indoors they must self-quarantine for 7 days if they receive a negative test or 10 days if they aren’t tested.
Because of that, it was criticized by Democratic legislators and State schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister.
“The ramifications of the pandemic on education have been challenging and severe,” Hofmeister wrote in a statement. “While this option underscores the need for mask requirements in school, I cannot in good conscience support ignoring quarantine guidelines from the CDC and other infectious disease experts. There is no doubt we all want our students and teachers to be safely in the classroom, but COVID is raging in Oklahoma. In-person instruction is critical, and so is mitigating the spread of the virus. They are not mutually exclusive.”
A state Department of Education spokeswoman said Hofmeister was not invited to the press conference Tuesday and wasn’t involved in crafting the plan.
Oklahoma’s new concept is based on a new set of identical guidelines approved in Missouri.
The so-called ‘Missouri model’ was released in mid-November.
It was swiftly adopted by Woodward Public Schools that month and had been unofficially followed by districts across the state last semester.
At that time, State Commissioner of Health Lance Frye and Hofmeister sent out a joint letter to school districts condemning the type of policy because “Oklahoma law prohibits an individual having a communicable disease from attending a public or private school.”
“Consistent with this, the law places a duty on families and school officials to isolate and exclude individuals from coming to school until the expiration of the period of isolation or quarantine, or until permission has been granted by the public health official,” the letter says.
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