The State Board of Education is being lobbied by a community coalition, made up of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, the Oklahoma Education Association and other organizations, to enact a statewide school mask mandate to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Board members are set to hold a special meeting at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, but it’s unclear whether the board will consider such a mask mandate.
The state board had previously voted 4-3 in a July 23 meeting to reject a proposal that would have required COVID safety protocols for schools, including a mask mandate. The board ultimately made the protocols recommendations instead of requirements.
“We’re of the position that we want children back in the classroom and we want those conditions to be as safe as possible,” Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy CEO Joe Dorman said. “We want kids back in a safe social setting. The only way to do that is to have a serious masking policy.”
A survey completed by the State Department of Education at the beginning of the fall school year showed that about 35 percent of school districts in the state were not enacting mask mandates.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health is currently reporting 20,129 active COVID-19 cases in the state, which equates to a 4,507 case increase since Friday, Nov. 6.
Dorman said he along with other members of the Masks Are Saving Kids coalition would like to see the state board reconsider their vote on COVID safety protocols in schools or bring forward a new universal policy, including a mask mandate, to vote on. He plans on addressing the board with this issue during the public comment section of the State Board of Education’s Thursday meeting.
Please retweet! 176 signatures in support in just over 24 hours! Keep up the great work by sharing this w/ your friends & across social media! The State Board of Education will meet next Friday. With enough work, we can get this on the agenda! https://t.co/PRgUbCzv79
— Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (@OklaChildAdv) October 30, 2020
This push for a statewide school mask mandate has also been made through the use of billboards in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas along with an online petition for a mask mandate.
“We encourage local school boards to take action immediately, but the simpler path is to get the state board to adopt a universal masking policy for the schools to have to follow to make sure that these schools are able to go back to the classroom or stay in the classroom,” Dorman said.
‘There comes a time when somebody has to step up’
Many larger school districts already have some sort of mask protocol. For Yukon Public Schools, the development of COVID safety protocols began in the spring.
Yukon Superintendent Jason Simeroth said a group of health professionals, teachers and administrators worked together to develop their district’s return to learn plan.
Yukon returned to in-person classes in September after three weeks of virtual learning. Simeroth said the district decided to follow the State Department of Education’s color-coded alert system in making mask requirement decisions.
When Canadian County is in the yellow alert level, the district’s policy is for sixth grades and up to wear their masks all day at school.
“Those are the groups that have the most interaction with other kids because they change classes every period,” Simeroth said.
While under yellow alert, students in pre-K through fifth grades are required to wear masks when arriving to school and when traveling through communal areas in the school, but not in their classrooms.
“Those classrooms pretty much travel together so the spread would’ve been limited to those groups,” Simeroth said.
However, on Sept. 25, Yukon entered the orange alert level, which triggered the next step in their safety plan.
“Everyone wears a mask all the time, pre-K through 12th,” Simeroth said.
He said that Yukon’s school board determined the safety protocols they would implement at each alert level during a summer board meeting.
Simeroth said he was surprised by the compliance from community members in regards to their mask mandate and believes the concern over personal choice was overridden by the desire to have students back in school.
“This is not a Yukon problem or a Sulpher problem or a Lawton problem. It’s a worldwide problem,” he said. “I think if we have a few very clear statewide expectations, whether its from the State Department of Education, State Health Department or governor, it’ll help us mitigate the spread to a certain degree.
“I’m a believer in independent rights and self-governance, but there comes a time when somebody has to step up and make something happen for the greater good when people won’t do it themselves.”
‘We have to think about the whole’
Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said her teacher organization has been asking the State Board of Education for a statewide school mask mandate since March.
“A statewide mask mandate would make every educator feel safe at school,” Priest said. “We’ve got members that were depending on the state school board to pass a statewide plan so that they would feel safe.”
Priest said washing hands, wearing a mask and socially distancing are the only ways to keep students and teachers safe. In schools, where the social distance aspect is hard to manage, she said wearing a mask becomes a necessity.
“We have to think about the whole and keeping all of our kids and the adults in the room safe. We absolutely are supporting making sure there is a statewide plan and mask mandate,” Priest said. “There are adults in schools that have extenuating health risks and students have those risks as well, whether it’s diabetes or other illnesses.”
Priest said a mandate from the State Board of Education handed down to other districts would be helpful to teachers in districts where they are at odds with their administration about mask mandates.
“I think they’re afraid to step up and say that this is a thing that must happen for us to be safe,” Priest said. “I don’t understand why because this is a health and safety issue, and if we err on the side of caution for our students, we are always doing the right thing.”
Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting is expected to be live-streamed through the Oklahoma Department of Education’s Facebook page.