McAlester public schools file

Staff file photo

McAlester Public Schools students

OKLAHOMA CITY — With the school year nearing, lawmakers, educators and health experts are tussling over mask mandates in the classroom and the best strategies to keep children safe as COVID-19 continues to spread and hundreds of thousands of children remain ineligible for the vaccine.

State House Democrats, meanwhile, on Monday called for a special session aimed at repealing Senate Bill 658. The measure, which passed late in session, largely along party lines, bans public schools, universities and technical programs from mandating masks on campus for unvaccinated students — unless there is an active state of emergency issued by the governor. It also prohibits COVID-19 vaccine requirements, including requesting vaccination documentation.

“I’m completely befuddled by how some elected leaders are not only ignoring the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations but are actively working to usurp local control in regard to the prevention of the spread of this virus and variants, especially in our schools,” state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said in a statement.

The Republican-controlled House has not moved on his request for a special session.

State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, who authored SB 658, said it was done in response to parents who believed they didn’t have any say in policies that their local elected officials implemented during the pandemic.

West also said that he's reviewed information questioning the overall effectiveness of masking. That's despite studies by the CDC and others that show a link between mask mandates and a reduction in the spread of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“I don’t totally discount that masks might help, but I don’t think that that’s what we should be relying on,” West said. “I think there are a lot of other things we could do.”

He said those include handwashing, social distancing and getting vaccinated.

On Monday, the Oklahoma Department of Health reported 1,369 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the state’s 7-day average to 1,627.

Despite the surging case numbers, Oklahoma’s medical professionals continue to urge schools to open for in-person instruction.

Dr. Ashley McAllister, a pediatrician with OU Health Physicians, said the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that children return to school for social and mental reasons.

“And so, because the vaccine’s only approved to 12 years old and above, they recommend universal masking in school to keep your kids safe, and then also their family safe as well because you never know if they’re living with someone who’s immuno-compromised or someone that’s high risk from getting really sick from COVID,” she said.

State Epidemiologist Jolianne Stone said that 631,748 children ages 0-11 are ineligible for the vaccine — about 16% of all Oklahomans. She said about 376,215 of those are school aged.

“We remain committed to ensuring our kids can safely attend school in person this fall so they don’t miss a moment of learning or reconnecting with their classmates,” Stone said.

She said everyone must work together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and urged everyone 12 and older returning to school to get the vaccine.

“According to Oklahoma law, OSDH and other state entities do not have the authority to mandate mask usage, the COVID-19 vaccine or other mitigation efforts,” Stone said. “As such, we will not be requiring adherence to these measures, but rather encourage individuals to assess their personal health risk level and make decisions based on what they are comfortable with.”

Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said there’s “great concern” around the most recent COVID-19 surge in cases. She said nearly 645,000 of the state’s roughly 694,000 students are unvaccinated.

“That is a lot of children coming back to school, and we want them to be face-to-face. We want them to be back in person,” Bishop said. “But, making sure that we have those safe learning environments is priority No. 1.”

She said the controversial state senate bill does not prevent schools from implementing provisions that are successful, including stressing the importance of universal masking and social distancing.

“When it comes down to it, our students’ health should not be a political issue,” Bishop said. “And so we want to make sure that everyone is protected. We want to make sure that all the safety protocols are in place so that we can stay face-to-face. What we’ve learned over the last year is that if for some reason we need to pivot and go to distance learning, we know how to do it. We know how to be efficient about it, and we know how to be successful.”

In a July 29 open letter to school administrators and school board members, Dr. Dwight Sublett, the president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote that all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with the goal of keeping “students safe and physically present in school.”

But he said uncertainty remains over what the next few months will bring.

He noted that the state had the seventh highest number of daily new cases per 100,000 population, and 80% of Oklahoma counties had “high or substantial” community transmission.

“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in 2020,” Sublett wrote.

His group recommends that all students older than 2 and all teachers and staff wear face masks when indoors whenever possible. That’s in part because as the virus mutates, physicians are concerned about variants that spread more easily among children and masks reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

“In the absence of schools being able to conduct monitoring of vaccination status on a daily basis, universal masking is a simple effective strategy to create consistent messaging, expectations, enforcement, and compliance without the added administrative burden placed upon our teachers,” he wrote.

West, the state lawmaker from Moore, said his colleagues continue to wrestle with how to approach COVID-19.

“All of this is stretching a lot of people in various directions because on the one hand you don’t want government saying you have to do this, but you don’t want government saying you absolutely can’t do this,” West said. “Finding that middle ground is very difficult.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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