OKLAHOMA CITY — For the rest of the semester, Oklahoma school districts will have the option of implementing in-school quarantine for students potentially exposed to COVID-19, state health officials announced Wednesday.
Instead of sending students home to quarantine after potential classroom exposure, starting Nov. 30, districts can opt to allow students to participate in distance-learning in a school-supervised environment.
In order to participate, schools must have a designated space for quarantined students that can accommodate social distancing, the ability to administer rapid testing and constant adult supervision, state health officials said.
“We’re issuing this change in policy to provide our school districts with some flexibility following the recent surge in COVID-19 cases,” said Dr. Lance Frye, the state’s interim commissioner of health. “We have recognized that some students subject to a 14-day quarantine may have lost many essential benefits schools provide, such as a safe environment with adult supervision, nutritional support, internet and technology resources and easier access to instructor assistance. Adopting this policy change will help protect students and teachers from COVID-19 while also providing a safe environment and resources needed for students to engage in distance learning during their quarantine period.”
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said the time of Wednesday’s about-face is very confusing. Less than 24 hours earlier, Frye and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister sent a joint letter to district leaders saying that they’d been alerted that some school districts were considering allowing students who have been exposed to COVID-19 to attend school on campus.
The letter warned districts that such policies are contrary to established state laws, regulations and guidelines to mitigating the spread of COVID-19. That includes the duty to prohibit an individual with a infectious illness from attending school.
“It is very frustrating that the adults in charge seemingly don’t follow state law in putting out new requirements that allow for the spread of a communicable disease that puts students and staff at risk,” Priest said. “I am not only surprised, but I am mortified, and we will do everything we can to protect our students and staff since the state of Oklahoma refuses to do so.”
She said her group’s legal department is looking into the new policy.
Priest said the state’s abrupt policy change leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Issues include selecting which teachers or staff are going to have to supervise in a potentially COVID-infected room, how students will be fed or use public restrooms and how many students are going to be in classrooms.
Priest said everyone agrees in-person instruction is best, but this plan doesn’t meet the safety mark.
“It boggles my mind how we think this could be a good decision for kids,” she said.
The state Department of Health said the policy is intended to work hand-in-hand with Wednesday’s letter and provide an alternative approach for schools.
“These students will still be honoring the quarantine guidelines, but in a way that minimized disruption of their education,” the agency said.
Hofmeister said the state Department of Education understands the policy to be a limited and controlled participation that will inform future public health practice.
“Districts and families are eager to minimize learning disruption while maintaining appropriate safeguards," she said.
Previously, if a student had tested positive for COVID-19, any students who interacted with them — including entire classes — were required to move to distance learning for 14 days, said Dr. Jared Taylor, the state epidemiologist.
“An abrupt change like that is quite disruptive to learning, especially for middle schoolers and high schoolers who attend multiple classes in a day,” he said. “An in-school quarantine option is the best way to keep our kids in school and prevent them from falling behind.”
He said the agency has carefully constructed a list of guidelines that must be followed to maintain the well-being of students.
Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association, said his group will review all the information and discuss questions with the state Health Department before facilitating a discussion with members about what is best for students.
“I’m sure the schools will be looking at all their options and what is best for the education and the health of their students,” he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.