Jehoiakim Sherer and Joslyn Standridge

ADRIAN O’HANLON III | Staff file photo

Jehoiakim Sherer and Joslyn Standridge piece together a model at Puterbaugh Middle School in McAlester.

A policy change aligns McAlester schools with guidance from the state health department.

McAlester Public Schools Board of Education members discussed less stringent quarantine policies for nearly two hours during Monday’s meeting before approving a motion to adopt the Oklahoma State Department of Health quarantine guidance — which states students and teachers exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 in school are no longer required to quarantine if they are masked.

“I feel like we’ve been extremely safe — and it’s worked,” MPS Board President Joy Tribbey said.

Tribbey and board members Shelli Colbert, and Rachel Gronwald voted for the policy adjustment. Board members Cameron Fields and Mike Sossamon voted against it.

Board members voted Aug. 31 to authorize Superintendent Randy Hughes to make COVID-19 adjustments to any aspect of the academic year and he implemented a mask requirement with students given the option to complete an opt-out form. Hughes said about 8% of students districtwide opted out as of Monday.

The new quarantine guidance requires exclusion of people in close contact with a person who test positive from high-risk activities where masking isn’t feasible or “is not known to be effective at preventing transmission of COVID-19.”

Fields said during the meeting he believes the district’s steps have helped slow the spread and commended everyone involved in contact tracing at the school. But he disagrees with the new quarantine guidance.

“We can't police it after they get home," Fields said of contact tracing. "When they go home from school, it's out of our hands so what good's it doing?"

"It's keeping them out of our classrooms," MPS District Nurse Ruth Rogers said.

Fields said he preferred students wearing masks and removing the extra-curricular activities exclusion.

A mask requirement came after MPS reported a spike of cases over the previous two weeks. McAlester Regional Health Center sent a letter to the school commending the district for implementing a mask requirement and other precautions.

MPS reported on Aug. 31 it had 9 employees and 30 students test positive — with a total of 346 staff and students isolating due to positive tests or being a close contact.

Data on Monday showed three staff and 25 students testing positive — with a total of 112 out.

“Since we’ve put our mask recommendation in, I haven’t seen anyone test positive after a contact — but we’ve only had that in for a few days,” Rogers said.

Last year, MPS switched to distance learning after it reported 400 students and staff out due to COVID-19 on Dec. 18, 2020. MPS also delayed the return to school January 2021 due to rising COVID-19 numbers at the time.

Board members agreed they want in-person instruction for students.

Students who wish to opt-out of wearing masks can complete a form and submit it to the principal’s office. MPS also offers distance learning.

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Oklahoma Senate Bill 658 into law to prohibit public school districts from requiring masks unless he declares an emergency. Stitt has consistently said he does not plan to do so.

The U.S. Dept. of Education launched civil rights investigations into Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah over state laws prohibiting schools from mandating masks. If an investigation determines those state laws threaten education access for students with disabilities and health vulnerabilities, it could lead to sanctions including loss of federal funding.

Scientific data and multiple studies show mask wearing helps limit spread of COVID-19.

“Experimental and epidemiological data support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2,” a CDC scientific briefing states.

Contact Adrian O’Hanlon III at aohanlon@mcalesternews.com

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