Hand sanitizer and a mask

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Oklahoma schools are starting to defy CDC quarantine rules

Some school leaders believe those rules are too restrictive and say masking should limit quarantines

  • Robby Korth

If a child in Woodward Public Schools is wearing a mask and is exposed to a person also wearing a mask with COVID-19, they will no longer be required to quarantine.

The district’s new rule was approved by Woodward’s school board Wednesday. It defies current guidelines from the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control.

Those federal guidelines – widely followed by schools that  are in-person around the country and in Oklahoma – say that when a child is within six feet of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 indoors they must self-quarantine for 14 days.

“School districts do not have the authority to make determinations around quarantining,” State schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “That is already set by the State Health Department as well as the CDC.”

But Woodward Superintendent Kyle Reynolds said the move is a sound and thought out one, based in science and designed to incentivize good mask wearing – a widely recognized way to slow COVID-19’s spread. 

Woodward, which has about 2,500 students, has had hundreds of quarantines at a given time. And students who are supposed to be away from school are going out into the community and engaging in far riskier activities while away from the classroom, he said.

“Our overarching goal or mindset is… our kids are safer at school. I mean, that’s the very bottom line,” Reynolds said.

So Reynolds said he wanted to find a way to limit those quarantine numbers. The most important piece of the new rules is masking, and it comes with a full mask mandate rather than a recommendation used in the past. Both the person who tests positive and the person who was within six feet must both be wearing masks properly for the exposed person not to have to quarantine.

Reynolds said an incentive is necessary to get masking compliance from parents in Woodward, where masking is a touchy political subject.

“They didn’t feel like there was an incentive for the child to wear a mask,” Reynolds said. “And so we did get input from parents in the community who were very resistant to the mask concept.”

They said if no quarantine was necessary, they’d be more likely to mask their child.

Hofmeister said masking is an important piece to fighting COVID-19. She’s said it repeatedly for months

But ultimately the science isn’t there yet to say limiting quarantines is OK, she said.

“We’re going to continue to support and abide by the recommendations of public health officials who carry that mantle of authority and have the duty to study that science and discern the data,” she said.

If the CDC were to say such a practice was fine, Hofmeister said she’d support it in Oklahoma schools to limit quarantines.

But the Oklahoma school district isn’t the first to flout CDC guidance. The concept is based on a new set of identical guidelines approved in Missouri.

The so-called Missouri model – released in mid-November – is not what’s recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and it goes against the rules of the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Enforcement and an order to stop the quarantining policy will ultimately be up to the state health department.

In a statement, a department spokesman wrote the following to an inquiry about Woodward’s policy:

“OSDH will work with the Oklahoma State Department of Education to review cases on an individual basis to ensure each district remains in compliance,” the spokesman wrote. “The ultimate goal is to keep students, faculty, staff and surrounding communities safe, so OSDH will work with each district to provide guidance that best meets their specific needs.”

Rules could be subject to change, though. In a press gaggle Thursday, Gov. Kevin Stitt and Commissioner of Health Lance Frye said they’re currently looking at state quarantine guidance. Stitt said he talked to the federal officials about it during  a trip to Washington D.C. earlier this week and hopes their guidance could change. 

“There’s some things that are going to come out shortly that’ll be reducing from a 14 day quarantine to potentially five or eight,” Stitt said. 

The move, the governor said, will incentivize people to quarantine for a shorter amount of time because right now numbers are being driven up by infectious people not quarantining properly.

This COVID-19/education reporting is made possible through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.