State education officials on Thursday adopted suggestions, rather than mandates, for safety protocols for all public schools in Oklahoma ahead of the start of the new school year.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister had proposed minimum requirements for school conduct — their mode of instructional delivery, health protocols, mask requirements, and restrictions on outside visitors, public events and extracurricular activities — based on the number of cases per capita in a county where the district is located.
But Hofmeister was overridden by a majority of the state Board of Education in a split 4-3 vote to amend the proposal to make the safety protocols only “strong recommendations,” ultimately leaving decisions about whether to hold in-person or distance learning or to require masks to local school boards.
Hofmeister, who voted in the minority, summed up the effect of the vote by declaring: “There is no safety requirement of schools.”
And after the meeting, she issued a press release calling the vote “very disappointing and one that likely will stoke more concerns for teachers, parents and families with a new school year only weeks away.”
But Bill Flanagan, a board member from Claremore, disputed her characterization during the meeting, saying that he and the other three members who preferred “strong recommendations” to statewide mandates care as much about school safety as anyone else.
“I think the color system is fine for information, but the final decision really needs to be left to the school district. They have the most current information about the status and the safety of those particular kids that are entrusted with their safety,” said Flanagan. “I really think the countywide stuff is so broad — if you have a nursing home or a meatpacking plant in your district and you have an outbreak in that, your numbers will go as high as the sky, but your school is OK.”
Board member Estella Hernandez, of Oklahoma City, also opposed the adoption of statewide mandates, saying it violated assurances about protecting local control she made during the process of her appointment to the state Board of Education by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
“We’re talking about top-down, and that’s not what Oklahoma and what this nation is all about,” she said. “It’s about trusting our local boards to do what they’re intended to do.”
The state’s newly recommended safety protocols are aligned with the color-coded COVID-19 alert system adopted about a month ago by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which is updated weekly based on rates of community spread being documented in each of the state’s 77 counties.
The protocols call for schools to be more restrictive as coronavirus cases became more prevalent in a county.
Hofmeister said the Oklahoma State Department of Education had spent countless hours working with state health officials to create the proposal. She also noted the majority of Oklahoma’s public schools are located in counties with current rates of community transmission of COVID-19 that would be recommended to hold in-person instruction if school were in session now.
She said both parents and teachers, thousands of whom are already eligible for retirement, have been looking to the state for an assurance of minimum safety requirements amid the global pandemic.
“This is a time for leadership. This is a time for the citizens of Oklahoma that are under compulsory attendance (laws) have assurance that protocols are provided,” Hofmeister said.
Carlisha Williams Bradley, a board member from Tulsa, was in the minority in wanting to make the minimum safety protocols mandatory, likening such an action to the state board’s adoption of requirements for every public school’s safety drills and student immunizations.
She pointed out that the state board voted to shut down public schools statewide in March and said now, “we are in the midst of something that is far worse than we ever predicted. I don’t even feel like this is enough.”
Bradley and Kurt Bollenbach, a board member from Kingfisher, attempted to get the board to reconsider making everything a mandate except the decision about whether to hold in-person classes, but that effort failed.
Board member Jennifer Monies of Oklahoma City voted to make all of the safety protocols only suggestions, saying that putting in place new requirements so soon before the start of the new academic year could throw the plans that many local school boards have already adopted “into chaos.”
Monies also said local school boards are going to be “much more nimble” to respond quickly to local pandemic-related concerns.
On Thursday afternoon, the state’s largest teachers union said the state board failed Oklahoma’s students.
“We appreciate State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister proposing a plan to make school safer for students and staff. Sadly, four state board members couldn’t find the courage to protect our communities,” said OEA President Alicia Priest. “This is not a board standing up for local control. It is a governor-appointed board hiding behind those words to escape their responsibilities to the children of Oklahoma.
“If our elected 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.”
The leader of Professional Oklahoma Educators, another association of teachers, applauded the state board’s vote.
“With more than 500 school districts across Oklahoma, POE understands that every community looks different right now and so does the corresponding level of risk,” said Ginger Tinney, executive director of the group. “A local decision is the most appropriate method to determine the best interest of everyone in the school district and the community.”
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