State schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister addresses the media at a conference in May outside Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City. In the wake of legislation blocking mask mandates and vaccine requirements in schools, she urges districts to take advantage of $100 million in grants to pay for COVID testing and school nurses. "We've lost local control with the new law," she told the Tulsa World. "But it means we need to lean more heavily on the other mitigation strategies."

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

With ‘normal’ school year looking less likely, educators and health professionals brace for return to class

  • Catherine Sweeney
  • Robby Korth

Doctors and educators agree: More young people need to get vaccinated.

Statewide, only 13% of eligible people in the 12-17 age group have gotten vaccinated. And with the Delta variant of the disease raging, it’s important to get the shot to limit its spread.

Dr. Donna Tyungu is a pediatric infectious disease specialist with OU Health. She has been raising concerns that the Delta variant is affecting children more severely than the original strains of the virus did.

“We are seeing previously healthy children coming in with COVID pneumonia, requiring oxygen,” she said.

That didn’t happen last year, she said. In 2020, with the original variants, intensive care was rare for children. She said it might have caused a false sense of security — that COVID-19 is only a problem for adults.

“This virus is different,” she said. “People have described it as COVID on steroids, and the virus has mutated in such a way that it is able to infect children much easier than the prior virus from last year.”

Tyungu said that deaths in children have happened — more than 300 across the country this year — but it is more rare than in adults.

“So children may not die, but they may have to go through a very traumatic and dramatic hospitalization, including needing oxygen to recover,” she said. “And then after recovering, some children, just like adults, may have prolonged symptoms, or what we call long COVID, including prolonged fatigue, insomnia, prolonged loss of taste and smell, muscle pain, headaches.”

Tyungu was speaking during a press briefing by the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition, a group that represents the medical community across the state. Several members of the coalition, including epidemiologists and physicians, said that a safe return to school will require higher vaccination rates for those who can get the shot and masking for those who can’t.

In Oklahoma County, the vaccination rate among people ages 12-17 is about 20%, according to a local health department spokeswoman.

And though that’s better than the numbers across the state, it’s still not good enough for Oklahoma City Public Schools. In a Wednesday press conference, the district urged its students and staff to get the vaccine if they can.

“That’s the No. 1 strategy to prevent COVID-19,” said Brad Herzer, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Safety and Security.

But the district knows not everyone will get vaccinated and has put in place a number of measures to limit the spread and quarantine time for students.

Like school districts across the country and state, OKCPS is following CDC guidelines. That means maximizing social distancing, strict hygiene guidelines, improved ventilation and making sure testing is available for students or staff who are exposed to the virus.

The goal: limit quarantines that prevent learning at school.

“The best place for a student, in my opinion, is in the classroom,” Herzer said. “We want kids back in school.”

One thing OKCPS can’t do is mandate masks like it did last year. Senate Bill 658, which passed during the last week of the legislative session, prohibited vaccine requirements and mask mandates in all educational institutions. That includes K-12 schools, colleges, universities and technology centers.

Dr. Mary Clarke, a Stillwater physician and president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said that will make it more difficult to ensure the safety of in-person learning.

“So we’re a little bit stuck between a rock and a hard place, knowing that our current legislature is against either of those, and our … governor’s office is against those,” she said. “So we’re kind of butting heads a little bit on this.”

Given that mandates are unlikely, Tyungu said that parents need to be proactive in ensuring their children are safe at school.

“I just really want that point to get across that even if schools cannot mandate masks, we do recommend that their children go to school in well-fitting masks — and maybe even consider medical grade masks,” she said.

Oklahoma County health officials note that although adolescents can get the vaccine, children under 12 can’t. Oklahoma City-County Health Department Executive Director Patrick McGough said during a Wednesday briefing that for young children, the only protection they can get is from the adults around them to get vaccinated.

“I just wanted to put out a general plea to the public,” he said. “Please do it for your children.”

Oklahoma County has the highest rate of vaccination in the state, but still 300,000 people remain unvaccinated, he said.

“They’re putting, literally, children at risk of being hospitalized.”