"Masks recommended": Inside Blackwell School's new COVID policy

by Jordan Green

Masks will be recommended and other safety protocols will be in place for Blackwell Public Schools students as they return to class this week. School officials announced their safety guidelines Aug. 10, saying that the school district may be forced to switch to distance learning if COVID-19 case levels rise in the community.

“Blackwell Public Schools will switch to distance learning when the risk level is high enough to determine community spread issues,” officials said in a statement. “The Superintendent will determine when to switch to distance learning.” Students may choose to take distance learning even though the district is conducting normal classroom learning. They can apply to participate in the program by obtaining an application in their school principal’s office, officials said.

The district will clean and disinfect school facilities more frequently, and students are urged to wash their hands more frequently as well. The school district legally cannot require students to wear masks or take the coronavirus vaccine under a state law passed this year. Senate Bill 658 prohibits school districts from implementing mask mandates unless Gov. Kevin Stitt issues an emergency declaration, though some Oklahoma school districts have already said they won’t comply with the law.

Stitt has repeatedly said he won’t issue such a declaration. But if he does, Superintendent Shawn Haskins may choose to implement a mask mandate, officials said.

Safety measures will also be in place on the district’s school buses. “Bus transportation will be provided for those who rely on it,” officials said. “The district is encouraging all parents to transport their children to and from school if possible. Students from the same family will need to sit together while riding on the bus. Students riding the bus will be allowed to wear face coverings if they choose to.”

Parents and guardians are asked to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms before school begins each day and to keep children home if they’re showing symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, shortness of breath or a cough, among other symptoms.

“The social and emotional well-being of our students is as important to us as their academic learning,” officials said. “Our school counselors will be prepared and available to help our students, families, and staff deal with all aspects of COVID-19. “Blackwell Public Schools will work closely with the Kay County Health Department to provide COVID-19 diagnostic and screening testing. All efforts will be made to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to all staff and students by utilizing the Kay County Health Department and local pharmacies.”

The news of the district’s safety rules comes as the number of active coronavirus cases in Kay County continues to increase. Kay County has more than 150 active coronavirus cases for the first time in months as the delta variant spreads, health officials reported Monday.

Data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health on Monday showed that Kay County had 5,671 cases of the virus, 153 of which are active. Officials said 5,389 Kay County residents have recovered from the virus, and 129 have died from it. State officials report that there are 4,115 cases of the virus in Ponca City. Eighty-five people there have died, and 3,945 have recovered. Blackwell has 750 cases, with 686 recoveries and 28 deaths. Newkirk has 474 cases, with 454 recoveries and six deaths. Braman has 28 cases, with 24 recoveries and one death. Tonkawa has 399 cases, with 369 recoveries and 15 deaths. Kaw City has 72 cases, with 64 recoveries and three deaths.

The state health department does not provide data on coronavirus cases in some of the state’s smallest towns, including Nardin in Kay County. Earlier this year, the department changed the way it counts coronavirus cases and deaths. The department includes provisional data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control on its website. Those numbers are higher than the state’s investigated total number of cases.

The department’s investigated numbers show that the state has 500,311 cases of the virus. Of those cases, 20,593 are active. Statewide, 7,594 people have died from it.

The CDC’s provisional numbers show that the state has 508,834 cases of the virus and 8,902 deaths. More than 1.6 million Oklahomans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The state health department said Monday that more than 1.9 million Oklahomans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Between 30% and 39.9% of the county is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. For more information on vaccinations, visit https://oklahoma.gov/covid19/vaccine-information/ vaccine-faqs.html.