Children made up the largest increase in the more than 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported on Thursday,

School-age children between the ages of 5-17 accounted for more than 20 percent of new cases. 

Thursday’s reported 4,152 new coronavirus infections was the 12th highest single-day total in Oklahoma since the pandemic started more than 18 months ago. It was the highest reported single-day case total since late January, when vaccines were still not widely available. 

Health department data showed 1,106 Oklahomans aged 17 and under, and 939 children between the age of 5 and 17 were reported as testing positive for the coronavirus. The data showed 22.26 percent of Thursday’s positive cases were of school-age children, an increase of 5 percent from last week’s 7-day average for the same age group.

During the last week of July, this age group made up only about 15 percent of the positive cases reported by the OSDH, and over the course of the pandemic, children between the ages of 5 and 17 have represented only 12 percent of the more than 500,000 total cases reported by the OSDH.

An Oklahoma 8th grader and a public school teacher died of COVID-19 complications this week, Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said during a State Department of Education board meeting Thursday morning. 

Hofmeister called the rise in cases among school-age children “jolting but not unexpected”  in a statement to The Frontier.

“Our schools have a duty to protect students and staff, and Oklahoma isn’t doing enough. This is clearly an emergency,” Hofmeister said.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister toured the Central Oklahoma PPE distribution warehouse for schools in Oklahoma City on Aug. 18, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, a former teacher elected in 2019 after a career as a public school teacher and administrator, said that the student’s death should be a wake up call.

“You’re seeing dominoes start to fall. Unfortunately we lost a student (to COVID-19) overnight, she told The Frontier. “The first death has happened and more will come. I’m not OK with it, we can’t be OK with it. We in the education community feel pretty dark right now.”

Provenzano said the increase in COVID cases in school-age kids was something she saw coming. She said she supported districts that have pushed back against Gov. Kevin Stitt and a new state law he signed that prohibits them from enacting mask mandates.

“Sadly we kind of have to leave the governor in the dust here and focus on what’s right for our children and how we can keep them safe at school,” she said. “I hate to say that, but you’re seeing schools step up and fight it and the Biden administration is stepping up and saying ‘Not on our watch.’”

The increase in cases comes as students across the state returned to schools, which are legally barred from enacting in-school mask mandates thanks to Senate Bill 658, which Gov. Stitt signed into law in May.

“The first death has happened and more will come. I’m not OK with it, we can’t be OK with it. We in the education community feel pretty dark right now.”

Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa

Some schools have pushed back. Earlier this month, Santa Fe South Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools enacted loose mask mandates, which allowed an exception for parents who did not want their children to be masked. Hulbert Public Schools has enacted a more strict mask mandate, which drew public criticism from Stitt.

And on Thursday, Tulsa Public Schools announced it would change its policy on masking — with the “expectation” that all students and staff will be masked during school hours beginning Sept. 7. The school district sent an email to parents that said it would only grant exceptions for “documented and approved medical exemptions” for staff and either “a documented and approved medical exemption or a district-approved exemption based on the educational or the social and emotional needs” for students.

Tulsa Public Schools Chief Finance and Operations Officer Jorge Robles said in a statement that the district is concerned about the recent spike in cases among young children.

“We are deeply concerned about the increasing rates statewide of school-aged children testing positive for COVID-19,” Robles said. “The recent surge is one of a number of factors we took into account to help inform our strengthened masking expectations for students and adults. We also continuously evaluate our safety practices to ensure that our schools are operating as safely as possible.”

He also encouraged every eligible Oklahoma “to help protect our children” by getting vaccinated.

“This is clearly an emergency.”

Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister

Stitt’s spokeswoman, Carly Atchison, told The Frontier that the governor would likely not comment on the Tulsa schools mask mandate. Newly appointed state Attorney General John O’Connor told Fox 23 on Thursday that he would sue schools that enacted mask mandates. 

“Look, these are not bad people,” O’Connor told Fox 23. “They want to do everything they can to protect their kids in the best way they feel is necessary. We need the courts to settle this issue for both sides of the argument, and it is my job to enforce and defend the laws of the state.”

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 9,044 Oklahomans have died due to COVID-19, and the OSDH reported Thursday that more than 539,000 positive coronavirus cases have been reported in the state since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 1,600 people remain hospitalized with the virus, according to OSDH data.