ENID, Okla. — Despite newly revised federal masking guidelines due to low vaccination rates, Enid area schools’ hands are tied from slowing down a surge in reported COVID-19 case outbreaks that health officials say to expect in the coming weeks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.
Citing new information about the ability of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people, CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.
But school districts in Oklahoma will have to begin classes without requiring face masks at any level of community spread because of a new state law meant to protect health choice.
Unlike for most of last year at Enid Public Schools, wearing masks will be for students’ parents to decide — as is getting the COVID vaccine, Enid Public Schools Superintendent Darrell Floyd said Tuesday.
“Same goes for our adult work force. They can decide for themselves,” Floyd said, citing the new law.
Senate Bill 658, which Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law early in June and which went into effect July 1, prohibits schools from enacting mandates for masks and other medical devices.
That’s unless the governor signs an emergency declaration, which Stitt said last week he would not do despite the recent rise in new cases originating from northeast Oklahoma.
Stitt also throughout the pandemic has refused to enact a statewide mask mandate, opting to recommend them while leaving that decision up to individuals and local governments.
The law also prohibits schools from requiring COVID vaccinations or “passports” to attend.
EPS lead nurse Karry Easterly, RN, said the district would be leaving on-site COVID testing and contact tracing up to the Health Department this year.
Easterly said she and fellow lead nurse Lana Cunningham, who took on both jobs last year, would instead return to school sites to work with students directly.
She said EPS summer school’s one staffed nurse didn’t have any issues with COVID.
“Just a lot of things are out of our control,” Easterly said. “And with our governor tying our hands and things ... you do what you can do. I’m just thankful we have our school nurses who can help.”
The district would not continue to update its online tally case report this year, she said.
Chisholm Public Schools earlier this month passed a new district return-to-learn plan, required to receive state-allocated COVID relief funding. This plan followed the state’s restrictions to not mandate masks unless an emergency declaration is made.
Masks then would be required in certain open areas, site-by-site, if the district reports positive COVID-19 cases make up 3.1%-5% of the building site population.
The district does not have a nursing staff, Chisholm Superintendent Chad Broughton said, but the district would continue reporting cases online and encouraging vaccinations for eligible staff and students.
School officials at Oklahoma Bible Academy in Enid, which required masks last year, did not return calls asking for comment.
Northwest Oklahoma is bracing for new cases largely from the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, said Maggie Jackson, who manages the state Department of Health’s north-west-central district of Oklahoma.
Though no related deaths have been reported in the last 90 days, new COVID cases in Garfield County have been trending up since the beginning of July.
OSDH’s most recent risk report shows Noble County with the earliest sign of increased delta variant spread, with 18 new daily cases on average per 100,000 population as of the week ending July 19.
Neighboring Garfield County’s rate of community spread is at 4.9 per 100,000, but Jackson said this reported lag is soon expected to match the CDC’s current reported 34.39 cases per 100,000 for the county.
“We’re watching a surge in new cases per day migrate through the state from northeast Oklahoma, so we can anticipate that this time next week, we’re going to have more reported cases,” she said Tuesday.
At 12.8% of people from ages 12-17, the youngest age group eligible for the COVID vaccine also is the least fully vaccinated group both in Jackson’s District 2 and Oklahoma, she said. (These counties include Garfield, Grant, Alfalfa, Major, Blaine, Canadian, Kingfisher and Logan.)
The highest fully vaccinated are people 65 and older, at 65.1%, she said.
Around 40% of Garfield County residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to OSDH.
Breakthrough cases, according to CDC, still can occur in vaccinated people, though most new infections continue to be among those unvaccinated, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.
Low vaccination rates and the delta variant’s high infectiousness “go hand-in-hand,” Jackson said.
“We still as a Health Department are recommending our 3 W’s,” Jackson said. “It’s still the same message. Wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance. … We understand that the goal is to get children to full-time, in-person learning, so with that layered prevention strategy, that’s how we’re going to avoid potential outbreaks.”
For much of the pandemic, CDC advised Americans to wear masks outdoors if they were within 6 feet of one another.
Then in April, as vaccination rates rose sharply, the agency eased its guidelines on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to cover their faces unless they were in a big crowd of strangers. In May, the guidance was eased further for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.
Back-to-school immunization clinics planned
The Health Department also is holding several back-to-school immunization clinics with local school districts in the coming weeks, including Watonga, Coyle and Aline-Cleo, Jackson said.
Enid’s on-site immunization clinic will be Aug. 17 and will include vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, as well as the COVID vaccine.
Another for elementary students will be Sept. 4, and middle schoolers Sept. 17 at Longfellow Middle School, Easterly said.
Immunization exemptions are available through EPS’ Welcome Center, then approved by the nursing staff and sent to OSDH.
Staff Writer Jazz Wolfe and The Associated Press contributed to this story.