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Point of View: Oklahoma governor's worrisome spin about coronavirus and schools

John Thompson
John Thompson

Gov. Kevin Stitt continues to misrepresent public health research and U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines while pressuring all schools to return to in-person instruction. His Tuesday news conference continued to politicize complex questions about reopening schools, saying, “Even the most liberal people in the country who locked everything down know that going back to school is the right thing to do.”

Stitt again opposed a mask mandate. The press conference also featured a misleading interpretation of a recent paper by Duke University researchers, "Incidence and Secondary Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Infections in Schools." The study showed that infections were rare in “35 North Carolina schools that offered in-person teaching for at least some of the 9 weeks, with only 17 staying open to students for the entire quarter.”

The ABC Science Collaborative helped a small sample of schools committed to “a multifaceted educational plan” with “assiduous adherence to masking, distancing, and hand hygiene.” They were not representative of all public schools or private schools; North Carolina private schools had more SARS-CoV-2 cases than all of the state’s traditional public schools combined.

The researchers acknowledged that the sample of schools “may select for school districts that enforce adherence to preventative measures, emphasize transparency, and cooperate with peers.” These characteristics “are likely associated with greater adherence to masking, reduced secondary transmission, and lower risks.” And, when two districts faced reduced compliance with masking and distancing, the ABC helped reinforce those policies.

These schools had “specialized plans for lunch,” with “eating outdoors when possible,” and “no talking while eating.” A district that exempted pre-K from masking reversed that policy after a cluster of infections. And schools benefited from contact tracing, and “reduced population density” due to about one-third of students remaining with remote learning.

In response to my questions about methodology, co-author Daniel Benjamin volunteered that the key to success:

Is that there is 99% mask compliance for every person in the mainstream curriculum who steps on school property. It’s the mitigation strategies — distancing, masking, hand hygiene — that are crucially important. If a school district does not do these things, they will likely make the pandemic worse by being open. This is why we don’t advise “you should open” or “you should go remote” It’s all about the public health measures.

I would add that the new research estimating that 59% transmissions, not 35% as previously estimated, are by asymptomatic persons indicates that it is more difficult to evaluate risks from in-person classes, in comparison to colleges, extracurricular activities, sports and going to bars — all of which are dangers that too many Oklahomans minimize. So, researchers who estimated that school closures would only prevent 2%–4% of deaths might want to run their numbers again.

We can all agree that in-person learning must return when it is safe, and the North Carolina study shows that it can be done. But, can it always be done by all schools at all times? And, the governor’s spin is even more worrisome when the mutated viruses that increase transmission are already in Texas and could be coming soon.

Thompson is a former teacher in the Oklahoma City school district.