Stilwell High School students wearing masks are socially distanced in their English class. Stilwell Superintendent Geri Gilstrap originally recommended the district start the school year with distance learning, but the Stilwell Board of Education voted in favor of the community's wishes to reopen in-person classes.

Faith Phillips / Stilwell High School

Oklahoma schools COVID-19 guidelines are widely ignored by many rural districts

An investigation by StateImpact's Robby Korth and Nuria Martinez-Keel of The Oklahoman

  • Robby Korth
  • Nuria Martinez-Keel

Oklahoma State School Boards Association

A map created by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association shows which counties are in different alert levels based on State Department of Education guidelines. Eighteen counties -with more than 130 school districts – have been at Orange Level 2 or above during the month of August but only six will start the year in distance learning, according to a survey conducted by StateImpact and The Oklahoman.

The 800 residents of Dewar have been fairly split.

Half of the eastern Oklahoma town’s parents told the local school district they refused to send their children to school with a mask, Superintendent Todd Been said. The other half wouldn’t send their children unless everyone wore one.

About 60% of Dewar Public Schools’ student body intended to come back in person. Forty percent preferred online classes.

Now, none of Dewar’s 450 students will return on the first day of school. Quarantines depleted staff numbers and forced the district to start the year with distance learning.

“I just got to looking at it, and I just thought, ‘My goodness, out of 30 people, out of 30 teachers, I’m going to be starting the school year with six employees basically gone because of COVID-related reasons,’” Been said. “I thought, ‘That’s a fifth of my staff. How are we going to have school with a fifth of my staff gone?’”

Okmulgee County had the makings of a COVID-19 hotspot at the beginning of August, right as Dewar was preparing to open school. Its rates of positive cases rose so high the Oklahoma State Department of Education recommended all schools in the county start the year virtually.

The state advises schools to close and have students learn from home when their county reaches Orange Level 2 — 25 cases per 100,000 people — in the state’s color-coded alert system.

Dewar is one of very few school districts to heed that advice. The Oklahoman and StateImpact surveyed 136 districts in counties at Orange Level 2 or the higher Red Level and found only six will start the year with distance learning.

The scarcity of schools starting online in areas of high community spread is “concerning,” said Ashley Weedn, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital at OU Medicine.

Children might not appear to have serious symptoms. However, there’s emerging evidence of long-term effects from the coronavirus and firm, scientific evidence that children are “silent spreaders” in communities, she said. Children are likely more contagious and have a significantly higher level of the virus in their airways, according to a study released Thursday from Massachusetts General Hospital.

Weedn is part of the joint COVID-19 response task force of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians.

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, pictured during a March press conference, have been at odds over whether or not school districts should require masking.

Masks often not mandated

Mask wearing is the single most important strategy for schools to limit COVID-19’s spread, she said.

Roughly a third of the school districts The Oklahoman and StateImpact surveyed will require students and staff to wear face coverings. Some districts mandate them in hallways and on buses but not in classrooms.

The joint task force of pediatricians urged Gov. Kevin Stitt to enact a statewide mask mandate, but the governor has resisted those requests.

“The lack of implementation of the (state Education Department’s) recommendations for masking is inadequate,” Weedn said. “We need to do better for our children, their families and our teachers.”

Stitt spent $10 million in federal aid to give masks and PPE to schools in all corners of the state, but he declined to say whether districts should require students and teachers to wear them.

“Superintendents, they’re closer to the action, they’re closer to the parents,” Stitt said at a PPE warehouse on Tuesday. “I’m going to leave that up to our local school districts to determine.”

The Oklahoma State Board of Education has taken a similar stance. The board, the majority of whom Stitt appointed, voted 4-3 not to require any COVID-19 policies for schools. Instead, the board made its COVID-19 Alert System a set of recommendations, though state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister advocated for them to be mandatory.

Hofmeister said schools must require masks if they hope to safely reopen.

“We beg (districts) to consult with the public health officials in their county and then be willing to take the actions necessary, even if they’re unpopular, to keep your students and those who serve in schools safe and able to stay open for the sake of our kids,” she said. “They need to have a fighting chance.”

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

The McAlester Public Schools Administration Building. McAlester Public Schools will welcome students back next week despite Pittsburg County being in a COVID-19 hotspot.

‘School is different’

As Adair County became a hot spot in early August, the state’s COVID-19 Alert System advised Stilwell Public Schools to start with online courses. To follow state guidance, Superintendent Geri Gilstrap recommended a distance learning plan for all 1,300 students.

Among Stilwell’s 4,000 residents, 261 have tested positive for COVID-19 and five have died.

But the Stilwell Board of Education voted against Gilstrap’s recommendation. The board believed if all students and staff adhered to safety measures, including a mask mandate, classes could continue in person.

Gilstrap said families in Stilwell made it clear to the board they wanted their children back in the classroom.

“I really think that was the basis for the board’s decision,” Gilstrap said. “What they wanted was a reflection of what the community wanted, and that’s why the decision was made to come back to school.”

Stilwell has not found any positive cases in the district since reopening, Gilstrap said.

However, other districts have pushed forward with traditional returns, even after students and teachers tested positive.

Boise City Public Schools delayed its return date on Aug. 12 after discovering cases among its staff. The Panhandle district intends to reopen in person on Aug. 31, despite recording the highest per-capita rate of new cases in Oklahoma last week.

Boise City plans to have its 300 students return with no requirement to wear masks and no option for online classes, the district confirmed.

This runs contrary to advice from local and national health experts.

In a recent visit to Oklahoma, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx advised state officials that all students and school staff should wear masks “at the minimum,” said Hofmeister, who attended the private meeting with Birx.

“It is troubling when I think about districts just forging ahead as if this is the start of school 2019,” Hofmeister said. “It isn’t. School is different. It is going to be different whether they believe it or not.”

In a county with high community spread, McAlester Public Schools plans to have all of its 3,000 students return Aug. 31. The McAlester school board approved a plan to have its student body alternate in-person classes for the first week of school, beginning Tuesday.

The district chose a traditional return despite McAlester and Pittsburg County having some of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 in the state, far exceeding Orange Level 2 when schools are advised to have distance learning.

“It scares me to look to other types of formats where our teachers have less experience,” Wise said. “They are going to struggle with making sure that the students are learning at the same levels that they would in the traditional setting.

“You’re not going to have the same outcomes with the students. In my mind it’s not as good an environment as a traditional setting where the teachers have all of their experience.”

Courtesy Westville Public Schools

Terry Heustis, Superintendent of Westville Public Schools in Adair County. Heustis has enacted a rotational A/B schedule at his school.

‘Told what to do’

State leaders have allowed local districts to choose their own policies, but superintendents say the decision-making hasn’t been easy.

Been, of Dewar, said he “wanted to be told what to do” by a state mandate that set clear requirements for masks and distance learning.

Superintendent Terry Heustis said he felt the same way when deciding how to reopen Westville Public Schools. A state order directing all Oklahoma public schools would have taken pressure off his shoulders.

Yet, the flexible guidelines allowed Heustis to craft a split A/B schedule that would reduce school crowds and keep students home half the week.

Not everyone in Westville agreed with the decision.

“It’s been a rough day,” Heustis said as he joined a Zoom call with reporters. “I got cussed first thing this morning about our plan.”

Been also fielded phone calls from angry parents who questioned how they could teach their children while working eight hours a day.

Been said he understands the challenges working parents will face this school year. He doesn’t know how his pre-K instructor will teach 4-year-olds to hold a pencil through a computer screen.

The school district already had to quarantine 19 students and three staff members who were exposed to COVID-19 in the Dewar football weight room. Those students and employees were just coming out of quarantine when Been learned six more teachers either tested positive or were exposed to someone with the virus.

Okmulgee County’s COVID-19 rate has decreased in recent weeks, but Been still isn’t convinced it’s safe to reopen.

“I think face-to-face (education) is absolutely the best,” he said. “In my case, if a teacher’s not there, then there is no face-to-face.”

StateImpact health reporter Catherine Sweeney and KOSU agriculture and rural issues reporter Seth Bodine contributed reporting to this story.This COVID-19/education reporting is made possible through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. It was prepared by The Oklahoman and StateImpact Oklahoma and distributed through the Oklahoma Media Center project Changing Course: Education and COVID.
The Oklahoma Media Center is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners.