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School superintendents react to Governor's quarantine waiver

Elisabeth Slay
The Shawnee News-Star
Local students wear masks at school to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.  FILE/PROVIDED

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt announced a policy change earlier this week in which Oklahoma schools following safety protocols, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, can forgo the mandatory two-week quarantine period for potential COVID-19 exposures.

Despite the new guidance, administrators in several Pottawatomie County-area school districts have decided to continue their current safety measures recommended by the CDC and the Pottawatomie County Health Department.

According to Dr. April Grace, superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools, the district is offering both virtual learning and in-person instruction, and students and teachers have remained relatively safe under the current CDC guidelines.

Grace said Shawnee's current policy, suggested by the CDC, requires students and staff members exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine for seven days and receive a negative test result before going back to school, or to quarantine for 10 days before returning.

"We're not going to change our protocol because we really want to balance providing the education with the safety of students and staff," Grace said. "So far we've been able to be in school other than a short amount of time where we had to pivot to distance learning."

While Shawnee schools have been able to have in-person instruction, McLoud Public Schools is only offering distance learning this week because of high positive cases and the current quarantine rate.

According to McLoud Superintendent Steve Stanley, the district actually had to expand distance learning into next week, Jan. 18-21, for both middle school and high school students because of the coronavirus.

Stanley said he disagrees with the governor's policy. While he understands the importance of providing the best education for students, Stanley said it should be done safely for both students and teachers.

"In my opinion, how do you relax a policy when the state number of cases is the highest it has every been?" Stanley said. "It's not better. It's not safe."

The superintendent explained McLoud will not adopt this new policy and the district will continue to follow CDC guidelines regarding quarantine, mask wearing, social distancing and other defenses against COVID-19.

Stanley said the pandemic has hit the McLoud school district hard as various teachers have been infected and a few even hospitalized.

Though McLoud Public Schools wants students and teachers to return to in-person instruction, he said it's not going to be at the expense of their safety.

"I'm not willing to risk one more teacher or one more kid," Stanley said.

Stitt's proposed policy still encourages schools to enforce quarantining if people are exposed when masks are not worn and social distancing doesn't occur.

In addition, the updated quarantine guidance does not apply if the exposure occurs during after-school activities, including sports, and those who test positive must continue to quarantine.

According to Tecumseh Public School Superintendent Tom Wilsie, details of Governor Stitt's policy have yet to be released in writing to schools.

"We will wait to make any changes in our existing quarantine protocol until we receive these changes in written form to ensure that we aren't making multiple changes," Wilsie said.

The superintendent said it's concerning to him that the changes in this policy don't resemble the safety guidelines recommended by the CDC, Pott. County Health Department and Oklahoma State Department of Health.

"These discrepancies make it more difficult for the school districts to know which set of guidelines to adhere to when working with our students and staff," Wilsie said. "During a time that we are experiencing record numbers of infections and deaths in our state and nation, loosening the required quarantining requirements seems to be counter to our mission."

In addition to Tecumseh, Seminole Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Bob Gragg said his district is also hesitant to adopt the governor's policy.

"While I appreciate Governor Stitt's efforts to be flexible in regards to local control issues, I am not anxious to jump out in areas that seem to be contrary to CDC guidance and could potentially increase the risks to our students and staff," Gragg said. "School employees and students are on the frontline trenches of this battle with the pandemic."

The superintendent said the Seminole district has not made a final decision but will continue to listen to the CDC, local health department officials and the Seminole school nurse and chief COVID officer and will most likely converse with the district-wide solutions team.

Overall, districts in the area are uncertain about this policy but will continue to take the best course of action in keeping both students and teachers safe.

Check back for updates.