Schools become a new COVID-19 ‘super spreader’ as classes resume

Collaborator: The Frontier
Published: 08/24/2020, 6:41 PM
Edited: 03/11/2021, 10:22 AM
Written By: Ben Felder (OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) As schools continue to open across the state, with many holding some form of in-person learning, the inevitable rise in COVID-19 cases among students and staff has schools working to mitigate further spread, while others abandon their plans and pivot to complete virtual programs. Salina public schools, a rural district in northeast Oklahoma, announced Wednesday it would move to virtual education for the rest of the month after a teacher and students tested positive. “This temporary transition is not something we want to do; however, nothing is more important than the safety and health of our students, our staff and their families,” Superintendent Tony Thomas wrote in a letter to families this week. Nearly 50 schools across the state have reported cases of COVID-19 among students or staff, according to KOSU, which has tracked known cases in Oklahoma schools. White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited with state officials last week, including State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who said Birx warned that the reopening of schools presents a new challenge to mitigating coronavirus spread, especially in some communities where people may not be taking the virus seriously. “Many times people don’t believe their own family members, or those they go to church with or they themselves have COVID and they do,” Hofmeister said. “But we have to be aware that we are about to open the schoolhouse doors and it can become a super spreader event.” Hofmeister said many schools across the state are dealing with a student testing positive and then having to do their own contract tracing to determine which students and staff may have came in contact with them. “I heard of one superintendent this week using some of the security camera footage (in the school) to identify the individuals who were in contact with a positive student,” Hofmeister said. One challenge for schools has been a student taking a test, attending school and then finding out they were positive. Some schools have had students come to class with a known case of COVID-19, Hofmeister said. Last week, a student at Westmoore High School attended the first day of class with a known case of COVID-19, according to district officials, who said an anonymous tip was made to notify them of the student. “We are finding that people have knowingly sent individuals to school or to a practice that had COVID and knew it,” Hofmeister told The Frontier. “Others said they weren’t going to honor the quarantining and that is troubling.” The start of school has been a catalyst for spread in some rural communities that had largely avoided a major outbreak since the pandemic first came to Oklahoma. Last week, Cimarron County had no known cases of COVID-19 and was the only county marked as “normal” on the state’s risk assessment map. But as teachers prepared for the start of school, several cases were reported among Boise City school staff. The school district postponed the start of school and this week Cimarron County has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 cases. Hofmeister has advocated for mask mandates in schools and for the state to impose more requirements in an effort to mitigate spread. Last month, she was unable to convince a majority of the state Board of Education to mandate masks and some building closures, and this week she appeared to publicly disagree with Gov. Kevin Stitt, who said local schools should be able to decide how best to respond. “The governor and I agree on a lot of things,” Hofmeister told The Frontier. “But he believes there is a need for local communities to decide (on whether to wear a mask) and I believe there is a need for a state-level mandate.” As more people gather in groups through school functions, state health officials have said expanded testing will be important to ensure people begin to quarantine as quickly as possible. Stitt is expected to approve a teacher testing program next week that will provide all teachers and support staff with free COVID-19 tests, with the goal of getting results issued quickly through the Oklahoma Public Health Lab Network. “Testing plays a key role in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” said interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye. “The Health Department has placed a top priority in helping schools navigate through these uncertain times to protect our children, our teachers and communities.” The Oklahoma Media Center is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. This story is part of that effort.


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