Oklahoma State School Board approves watered-down version of COVID-19 Alert System for schools

Classrooms & COVID-19

OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to weaken the language in a proposed Covid-19 Alert System, leaving it up to school districts how to respond to the pandemic and open back up.

“Today’s vote is very disappointing and will certainly stoke concerns with teachers, families, students as we know that the school year is about to start in just a few weeks.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister expressed her dismay at the vote to amend the plan both during and after the virtual special school board meeting Thursday.

It’s a color-coded system that aligns closely with the system used by the state to alert counties when the number of COVID-19 cases rise and fall.

As it was proposed, each level would introduce new recommendations or requirements regarding safety precautions like  mask-wearing, how many students can be in a classroom at once, and when to employ virtual learning.

But several board members argued the state shouldn’t exercise its power to require districts to take action. They said they wanted to leave it up to local school boards to make the decision.

“We’re talking about top down, and that’s not what Oklahoma and what this nation is all about,” said board member Estela Hernandez. “I want to refocus that. It’s about trusting our local boards to do what they’re intended to do.”

Hofmeister and others argued that these were bare minimum requirements made on the advice of epidemiologists.

“I don’t even feel like this is enough. Children need to have a safe environment. Parents need to be able to trust that schools are able to provide that,” said board member Carlisha Bradley.

The superintendent said local school boards were counting on the state’s backing, and that without it, they may not have the confidence to set needed mandates.

“I think the support from the state would assist districts in accomplishing what they already believe is the right safety protocol, but needed that support to get it done,” Hofmeister said.

Ultimately the board voted four to three to remove any requirements for school districts. Bradley, Hofmeister, and Kurt Bollenbach voted to keep them. Hernandez, William Flanagan, Jennifer Monies, and Brian Bobek voted to leave it up to districts.

Afterward, Alicia Priest, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association responded with a statement saying,

“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.
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.
Our districts need strong leadership, but they didn’t find it
at the State Board meeting today.”

Ginger Tinney, the executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators also responded with a statement, saying

“Providing for the health and safety of teachers and school children is paramount. The State Board of Education voted today to adopt safety protocols with recommendations, not a mandate, for a COVID-19 alert system.
At POE, our recommendation regarding the reopening of schools in Oklahoma is to ‘Postpone in-person opening of schools if substantial spread of COVID-19 is present in the community as determined by the school administration, school employees and the local community and health officials.’
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. A local decision is the most appropriate method to determine the best interest of everyone in the school district and the community. Many districts across the state may require a delay in opening or institute other protective measures including mandatory wearing of masks by employees and/or students. To help those districts with mask mandates, POE has purchased masks to distribute to our members.
POE will continue to work tirelessly to advise and assist educators with concerns about reopening schools, protecting their own personal health and the health of their students.”

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