OKLAHOMA CITY — A deeply divided state school board refused Thursday to mandate statewide safety requirements for districts when they reopen next month.

Instead, the state Board of Education adopted a series of measures that they “strongly” recommended districts embrace, leaving the door open for a piecemeal approach that could widely vary from one district to the next amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic in Oklahoma.

Saying they supported local control rather than state mandates, the board voted 4-3 against mandating face coverings in schools that are experiencing widespread community spread of COVID-19.

The majority of board members also decided individual districts should determine when it is safe to hold in-person classes, allow contact sports and hold public gatherings on school grounds and whether to allow visitors on campus.

“It’s about bottom up, not top down,” said Estela Hernandez, a board member. “It’s about trusting our local boards to do what they’re intended to do.”

Many district leaders, meanwhile, were watching closely for guidance from the state on how to safely proceed with reopening and how to tackle the pandemic.

“I don’t want to infringe on local control more than we should be doing, but I also want to ensure that we, as a state board, are taking a leadership role and pushing out guidance,” said board member Kurt Bollenbach. “I believe the state across the board is looking to us for guidance.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who backed a statewide safety requirement mandate, said the number of COVID-19 cases is only going to continue to grow in the coming months. This is a time for state leadership, she said.

She supported a plan that would give districts tiered requirements on how to operate based on the current number of cases per capita in each county. The plan piggybacks off a tier-colored map that’s updated each week by the state Department of Health. It’s designed to help local policymakers better understand the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

In counties classified as “green” by the state Health Department, districts would be expected to offer in-person instruction and could choose whether to mandate face masks and limit visitors. School activities would be allowed with caution.

“Yellow” counties would be expected to offer in-person instruction, but masks would be required for students in grades 4-12 and for children in prekindergarten through third grades in common areas. School visitors would be limited, and officials recommended limiting assemblies and other events.

Districts in “orange” counties would use alternative school schedules to allow for greater social distancing and virtual learning. Face masks would be required for teachers, students and staff. Buildings could not be used for extracurricular activities and contact sports would be prohibited.

Districts in “red” counties would be required to use distance learning.

The state board adopted the plan as a recommendation, but said they would not require districts to use it.

'Do the right thing'

Parents are required by law to send children to school and need assurances that their children will be safe, Hofmeister said. Many Oklahoma children are at risk of complications if they contract COVID-19.

Districts need to focus on learning, she said, adding that schools likely won’t have time to spend with health experts each week to shape their decisions. Teachers will have to decide if they want to put their families at risk without a guarantee of minimum protections, she said.

“Today’s vote is very disappointing and one that likely will stoke more concerns for teachers, parents and families with a new school year only weeks away,” Hofmeister said after the vote. “We all realize how important it is for schools to reopen. But we are in the midst of a global pandemic, with COVID-19 cases sharply rising in our state. I believe it entirely appropriate that the state board establish a floor of recommended and required protocols to ensure a safer environment for all in the school community — teachers, staff and students.”

She said districts are strongly urged “to do the right thing” by masking up and following social distancing guidelines

Hernandez, who voted against a mandate, said the state board adopted a protocol that districts can follow.

“This is the safety protocol that we are strongly recommending all 500-plus districts to go about,” Hernandez said. “So this body did take a proactive vote to be able to keep the safety of students and staff at the forefront and giving our districts the ability to decide, depending the size of their districts, to do what is best for their districts.”

After the vote, Oklahoma Education President Alicia Priest said it was sad that four state board members “couldn’t find the courage to protect our communities.”

“This is not a board standing up for local control,” she said. “It is a governor-appointed board hiding behind those words to escape their responsibilities to the children of Oklahoma. If our elected leaders do not take their obligations to protect them seriously, our kids are the ones who will suffer — along with our colleagues, our families and our fellow Oklahomans. Our districts need strong leadership, but they didn’t find it at the state board meeting today.”

Ginger Tinney, executive director of Norman-based Professional Oklahoma Educators group, said safety decisions should be made locally.

“With more than 500 school districts across Oklahoma, (our group) understands that every community looks different right now and so does the corresponding level of risk,” she said. “A local decision is the most appropriate method to determine the best interest of everyone in the school district and the community. Many districts across the state may require a delay in opening or institute other protective measures.”

Board member Bill Flanagan, who also opposed the mandate, said there’s “nothing diminished” from the vote. Everyone on the board remains concerned about student safety.

“The question is what is the best way to get there,” he said.

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

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