As the Spring 2021 school semester is beginning, Governor Kevin Stitt issued new recommendations regarding quarantining of students who have come in contact with a person who may have COVID-19. Under the new guidelines, schools are allowed to lift quarantine requirements if enforcing mandatory mask usage and social distancing unless the person in question shows symptoms of the virus.
The guidelines received support from a majority of Republican members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, but others in the medical and education communities did not approve of the change. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discussed the controversy in this Capitol Insider segment.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, Governor Kevin Stitt has extended his COVID-19 emergency executive order for another thirty days. That goes through February 12th. There is one change from the current order regarding bars and restaurants. What does the new order do?
Shawn Ashley: Well, the new order does not include the 11 p.m. curfew for in-person service at bars and restaurants, although it does keep in place the social distancing requirements and the barrier requirements that were in the executive order. For the most part, the order is very much like what we've seen for several months now, and much of it relates to government operations, expedited licensing for medical professionals and an easing of purchasing requirements, particularly for PPE and things like that.
Dick Pryor: The governor and interim commissioner of health, Dr. Lance Frye, announced new state recommendations for quarantine practices in schools. What are they recommending and how do they justify their approach?
Shawn Ashley: Well, under the new guidelines, students and teachers exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 would no longer be required to quarantine outside of the school, at home. They would be able to continue in the classroom. Now, the key here is if that exposure happened in the classroom where everyone was wearing a mask. Now it's up to the school districts to adopt this policy if they want to do so. What Governor Stitt and Commissioner Frye have indicated is that an American Academy of Pediatrics study in North Carolina showed only a handful of infections under similar circumstances. But local medical professionals point out that the North Carolina school districts were working in communities with more strict mitigation efforts. Therefore, you're sort of comparing apples and oranges. Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and the Oklahoma Education Association have pointed out that this still raises concerns for them about putting teachers in those classrooms and the possibility of infections there.
Dick Pryor: A spokesperson for State Superintendent Hofmeister says the State Department of Education was not consulted on the new recommendations. Now, knowing how government typically works, excluding the state superintendent on such an important matter involving schools is not necessarily wrong, but unusual. What does this tell us about the relationship between the governor and the state superintendent?
Shawn Ashley: What we've seen throughout the pandemic is that it has seemed to want to sort of cut his own path, particularly when it comes to education. You may recall that he allocated a large portion of the CARES Act funding for schools that was under his control to other educational programs rather than directly to public schools. Also, back in November he and Commissioner Frye ruled out another potential change to the quarantine rules, a pilot program where those who had been exposed to COVID-19 would be taught in classrooms isolated away from other students. But not many school districts adopted that.
I think it's important to note one thing – it’s that the governor, Commissioner Frye, Superintendent Hofmeister, Alicia Priest at the OEA and other education and medical professionals are really driving toward the same goal. They want students and teachers back in the classroom. The question is, and the one that is often raised again and again, is how they do that safely?
Dick Pryor: Exactly. Oklahoma legislators are continuing to pre-file bills as they head toward the resumption of the session, in-person at the Capitol, on February 1st. How that works bears watching. Our neighbors in Missouri had to shut down their legislative session after just one week due to a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Capitol building. Are health and safety procedures at the Capitol still a work in progress in Oklahoma?
Shawn Ashley: Yes, we've yet to see what the final requirements will be once the legislative session resumes February 1st. Currently, everyone is expected to wear a mask, whether they're in the chamber or in committee rooms. But what we see is that most of the members are, but some are not. So those final rules will have to be set before we come back in.
Dick Pryor: All right, Shawn, thanks.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.