How much do in-person classes contribute to the spread of COVID-19? Oklahoma’s health commissioner said a new in-school quarantine program could provide some answers.
Dr. Lance Frye said the program, which will be tried first by Mustang Public Schools, could provide insight on how schools factor into the spread of the virus.
“If their students are wearing a mask, and they have effective contact of some type (with someone infected with COVID-19), and they’re in quarantine—what is the rate of transmission? No one has that information,” he said.
Frye added, “one of the reasons we're doing this is, we’re trying to see what impact schools actually do have” on the overall transmission of COVID-19, which has led to the deaths of more than 1,800 Oklahomans this year.
Last week the Oklahoma State Department of Health announced the program is available for the district to opt-in until Dec. 23. So far, only Mustang High School is participating.
In-school quarantines will only be offered to students who are potentially exposed to the virus inside the school. Anyone who is symptomatic will be sent home to quarantine.
Frye said Oklahoma could be the first state to allow students exposed to the virus to quarantine in school buildings.
“It’s a very proud and big moment for us,” Frye said at a press conference inside Mustang Public Schools on Wednesday.
In order to properly quarantine, the district must have rooms available to space students out by six feet or more. Quarantined students must be completely separate from the rest of the school, among other requirements.
Mustang classes have been completely virtual since Nov. 16, but every student is not issued an electronic device by the district. Superintendent Charles Bradley said distanced learning has negatively impacted learning and performance overall. The in-school quarantine program, he said, could help struggling students.
“No student is being forced to or being asked to be a part of the program. It's voluntary,” Bradley said.
The program’s rollout comes as Oklahoma experiences “unyielding” virus transmission, according to the latest report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Hospital capacities are strained, leading one Oklahoma City hospital to put up an overflow tent.
Dr. Aaron Wendelboe did not recommend districts enter the program. Wendelboe, who was an interim state epidemiologist until earlier this year, said trying in-school quarantines would be better suited for when the state is not seeing increases in cases and hospitalizations.
“If we get through the peak and get into a part where we get the vaccine, then I think in a couple of months we’ll be in a much better position,” Wendelboe said.
Emily Piland is a mother of two Mustang High School students and said she fears the program could be dangerous.
“It’s just really tough to think that my kids are going to be going back there, and be put in a situation where they could potentially, even in the parking lot, come across someone who’s been exposed,” she said. “If this is something that’s going to be implemented when school starts back, my kids won’t be going back to school.”
Bradley said the district still needs to find a staff member to supervise quarantined students. As of Wednesday, MPS does not have a date for students to return to in-person classes.