Gov. Kevin Stitt wants all schools to reopen for in-person learning next month. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister wants a mask mandate in all school facilities.
Earlier this month, staff for each hashed out a proposed order that would have done both but was ultimately rejected by the governor a day before the state Board of Education could vote on it, according to multiple sources and documents obtained by The Frontier.
“We just didn’t get there,” Hofmeister told The Frontier.
Due to rising COVID-19 cases, some schools continue to operate in a virtual learning system, including both Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts.
Stitt has complained about the continuation of virtual learning and recently asked Oklahomans to pressure local school boards to reopen their buildings.
“My heart breaks for these kids that have not been in school since last March,” Stitt said at a news conference earlier this month. “The parents have got to get involved. If they want their kids in school they are going to have to help, they are going to have to join in with pressure (on local school boards).”
Hofmeister has said the best way to reopen school buildings is to enforce a statewide mask mandate, or at least require one for students, teachers and all school staff, a move the governor and a majority of his appointments to the state Board of Education have rejected.
But after nearly a week of conversation between state education officials and the governor’s staff, a proposed order was drafted and shared with the governor’s office that, if approved by the state board, would have required all school districts to offer an in-person option and mandate masks on school property.
“Pursuant to recent and ongoing conversations, attached is a draft of the discussed school-related COVID-19 requirements and authorizations,” Brad Clark, general counsel for the state Department of Education, wrote in a Dec. 15 email sent to two staff members for the governor and Ryan Walters, Stitt’s secretary of education.
A copy of the email and the attached order draft (see above) was obtained by The Frontier through an open records request with the state Department of Education.
The next day the governor’s office informed the Department of Education that Stitt was not on board with the proposal, according to three people with knowledge of the negotiations.
On Dec. 17, as the state Board of Education met without the proposal before them, Stitt held a news conference to announce he was adding educators to the second phase of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan and that he wanted the state board to take any action it could to compel school buildings to reopen.
“I want every Oklahoma school child to have an in-person option in January. Period,” Stitt said at the news conference.
The state Board of Education, which has six of seven members appointed by Stitt, could take up the issue without the governor’s approval.
But Hofmeister said she wouldn’t present the proposal to the board without Stitt being in support.
No board members responded to The Frontier’s emails and calls requesting comment for this story.
Hofmeister said the idea of ordering school buildings to reopen came from a meeting between herself and Stitt in early December.
“I met with the governor and his chief of staff and … in the course of the conversation we both said we want to see our students back in school,” Hofmeister said. “The conversation shifted to what could be done to have a plan to do in-person learning as an option in January and it went from there.”
Walters, Stitt’s secretary of education, said ordering an in-person option and a mask mandate were key parts of the discussion from the beginning.
“Those were two things that were always part of the discussion … but there wasn’t a hard deal there,” Walters told The Frontier.
Both Walters and Hofmeister said discussions on a possible order could be renewed.
“We all want schools to be able to open as soon as they can do so safely,” Hofmeister said. “But it is paramount that we have safeguards in place and mask-wearing is a bedrock safety measure.”
At a December news conference, Stitt pointed to statements from officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating COVID-19 spread within school buildings has been minimal and that in-person learning can take place safely.
“These kids are safe in schools,” Stitt said.
Some research indicates schools can be relatively safe, especially with mask usage.
The state Board of Education has voted to strongly recommend masks in schools but rejected a mandate.
In March, the state board ordered the closure of school buildings as the pandemic first arrived in Oklahoma.
But this school year the board has largely left individual school districts to decide how to respond.
The result has been a patchwork of some schools conducting in-person learning, while others are holding class entirely online.
Stitt believes the inconsistent response is creating an academic disparity.
“I’ve heard from so many parents, students and teachers about how hard this year has been,” Stitt said. “Many kids have had the option of being in person for school and I believe all children deserve that same opportunity.”
Earlier this month, the Oklahoma City Public Schools district announced it would attempt to welcome back elementary students to buildings in January, followed by middle and high school students in February.
Sean McDaniel, the district’s superintendent, said the rate of cases would still be considered in deciding whether to hold in-person class, “But that will no longer be a primary driver of our decision … because we have added additional layers of safety.”
Tulsa Public Schools has also planned for a phased return to in-person learning in late January.
Further reading about the state’s response to COVID-19: