mcalester masks

McAlester Public Schools file photo 

McAlester Public Schools will require students and staff to wear masks with an opt-out available for students.

The school’s board voted Tuesday to delegate authority to make adjustments to any aspect of the academic year regarding the COVID-19 pandemic to Superintendent Randy Hughes — who said masks will be required unless a student submits a completed opt-out form.

"I think it's our responsibility to protect every kid in the district," Hughes said. 

"I think that's what we've got to do, I think that's what we're called to do," Hughes added.

MPS Board President Joy Tribbey and board members Shelli Colbert, Rachel Gronwald, and Mike Sossaman voted to approve the motion in Tuesday's special meeting. Board member Cameron Fields did not attend.

The mask requirement comes after MPS reported on its website a jump in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks.

MPS reported one staff member and seven students tested positive Aug. 17.

Monday's report showed 10 employees and 22 students testing positive — with a total of 268 staff and students isolating due to either a positive test or being a close contact.

"I think we're in a critical time right now," Hughes said.

Last year, MPS switched to distance learning after it reported 16 staff and 18 students testing positive, plus 400 total out due to isolation on Dec. 18, 2020. MPS also delayed the return to school January 2021 due to rising COVID-19 numbers at the time.

Gronwald said the district's data after just two weeks this year causes concern about being able to keep students in the classroom.

"It's our responsibility to be able to educate them and keep our doors open," Gronwald said. "So that's where I'm coming from in decision-making because they need to be there." 

Teachers will be required to wear masks. Students can fill out a form and submit it to the campus principal's office if they prefer to opt-out of wearing masks — but will be required to wear a face covering until a form is on file. MPS also offers distance learning.

School officials said the opt-out form would be available on the MPS website later Tuesday.

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.

Oklahoma City Public Schools, Santa Fe South Schools, and Hulbert Public Schools announced mask mandates earlier this month as the first districts to challenge the state law.

The U.S. Dept. of Education on Monday launched civil rights investigations into five states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah — on whether state laws prohibiting schools from mandating masks threaten education access for students with disabilities and health vulnerabilities.

Those state policies conflict with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of universal mask wearing for students and teachers.

An investigation that determines the state mask bans discriminate against students with disabilities could lead to sanctions including loss of federal funding.

The department said it wasn’t yet investigating similar mask mandate bans in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona because those policies were overturned in court or not being enforced.

"We're in the middle of a pandemic and we're seeing some really, really high numbers so for me, that really felt like some support to help protect us," Tribbey said of federal education department's announcement. "

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.

MPS will also reduce indoor activities to half capacity and recommend mask wearing to school-sponsored activities. 

Officials at nearby Hartshorne Public Schools and Wilburton Public Schools announced last week the districts would transition to distance learning until Sept. 7 due to rising COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

Hartshorne reported 41 active cases at the time — accounting for more than 30% of the district. Neither district enforces masks, but both encourage wearing masks to help prevent COVID-19’s spread.

Medical experts continue urging masks and vaccines to again slow the spread of COVID-19.

McAlester Regional Health Center reported Friday it received 82 COVID-19 patients from July 1 to 1 p.m. Aug. 26 — with 86.59% of those being unvaccinated.

Vaccination status is verified through physician documentation in the patient’s medical record and/or the Oklahoma State Immunization Information System (OSIIS), MRHC officials said.

Anyone 12 years and older is eligible to receive a vaccine, with a parent or guardian required for anyone younger than 18 to get the jab.

Pfizer’s vaccine received full FDA approval that covers those ages 16 and older, while it still has emergency use authorization for those ages 12 to 15. Vaccines by Johnson & Johnson and Moderna both received emergency use authorization for individuals 18 years and older.

Vaccines do not give someone COVID-19, nor do the vaccines interact with DNA. The CDC states mRNA vaccines help cells make a protein that triggers an immune response to protect against infectious diseases.

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

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