With the first day of school less than three weeks away, Tulsa Public Schools is asking staff and students not to ditch their masks quite yet.
Presented as part of a staff report at Monday night’s school board meeting, the district’s COVID-19 safety plan for the 2021-22 school year includes “expecting” students and staff to wear masks while on campus. TPS’ first day is Aug. 19.
Masks were mandatory on TPS campuses until June 8 and, citing federal rules regarding public transportation, will remain mandatory on school buses.
“Our kids deserve to go to school without worrying about spreading the virus to their immunocompromised neighbors and family members,” board member Judith Barba Perez said. “We shouldn’t have to ask our families to choose between going to school and staying safe. We know that masks work.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law Senate Bill 658, which bars school districts from requiring masks unless a state of emergency is declared by the governor for their community.
Even if such a declaration is issued, the new law requires that additional steps be observed, including revisiting the mask mandate at every regular school board meeting while it is in place.
As presented to the board Monday night, TPS’ reentry plan acknowledges the restrictions in the new state law and does not include language explicitly requiring anyone to wear a mask while on campus. However, describing the masking guidance as an expectation rather than merely an option drew objections from one board member.
“These guidelines don’t carry the legal implications of a mask mandate, but they come awfully close,” board member Jerry Griffin said. “I don’t think this follows the spirit of Senate Bill 658. People aren’t being advised it’s optional with this language.”
Other components of the district’s mitigation plan for the coming school year include limiting access during the school day for nondistrict employees, using electrostatic sprayers to help sanitize buildings and enforcing social distancing as much as possible.
Additionally, in partnership with the Tulsa Health Department, the district will expand its on-campus rapid COVID-19 testing to include elementary schools in an effort to help identify asymptomatic cases earlier. Student participation is on an opt-in basis.
TPS is also working with the Tulsa Health Department, the Oklahoma Caring Van Program and other area health care providers to set up additional COVID-19 vaccination clinics. However, according to an email sent to parents Monday evening, more than 17,000 TPS students are not old enough yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
With the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases through the month of July, Superintendent Deborah Gist announced at Monday night’s meeting that the district will reopen enrollment for its online option, Tulsa Virtual Academy, later this week. As of Monday night, TVA has staffing capacity for about 500 additional students combined across all grades.
“We do have virtual spots for some students, but we won’t be able to accommodate everyone,” Vice President Suzanne Schreiber said. “It is important to understand what the law is, as well as the importance of keeping everyone safe.”
Several other area school districts are still in the process of finalizing their plans for the coming school year. A spokesman for Union Public Schools said Monday afternoon that the district would release a draft version of its re-entry plan for the coming school year on Wednesday for public comment before it goes before its Board of Education. Union’s first day of school is Aug. 18.
Sand Springs Public Schools is expected to release its plan online Tuesday. The plan, as discussed at Monday evening’s school board meeting, calls for masks to be optional at all district sites.
Because Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people and because the school district will not be permitted to ask people their vaccination status, it will be impossible to impose quarantines, Superintendent Sherry Durkee said.
She said the district still plans to contact trace and inform parents when their children have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, however.
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