Accountability Health Oklahoma Safety

John Thompson: Politics and the Coronavirus in Oklahoma

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John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, contributes frequently here.

He writes:

If you want to get really depressed about today’s politics, look at the New York Times’ Upshot, which asked: Should Children Go Back to School? Sadly, the answer has been, “It depends in part on your politics.”

One source the Times cited was a Brookings Institute analysis of data which found that “politics, more than public health, was driving school districts’ reopening plans.” Brookings discovered:

No relationship between school districts’ plans and their counties’ infection rates. Instead, there was a strong correlation between a district’s plans and a county’s support for Mr. Trump in 2016.

We should all be horrified that President Trump and his supporters have put ideology and short term politics over the health of students. When we get through this nightmare, deep soul searching will be necessary as we ask how our politics have devolved to this point.

Below is a step towards such a reckoning. It uses Oklahoma, a “red state” in terms of Republican power, which has become a “red zone” in terms of infection spread, as a case study. White House reports that were not revealed to the public until recently, now show that Oklahoma has the nation’s 8th highest positivity rate.

Eight White House Corona Virus Task Force reports on Oklahoma’s COVID infections were finally released on August 25. As many parents send their kids back to in-person school, they now can read the full truth that could have been revealed almost two months ago about what safe reopenings would require.

This is how Oklahomans finally got access to crucial public health information. The Tulsa World reported that on August 13, before Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited Tulsa, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he directed the state Health Department “to post everything and be as transparent as possible.” But, a week later, The Center for Public Integrity published a second, secret report; Tulsa Mayor Bynum thus learned that “eight White House reports had been issued. Bynum said he was only aware of one that had been previously leaked to the media.”

Dr. Birx met briefly with numerous members of the Stitt team and a few others, but without key public health leaders, such as Tulsa Health Department director Bruce Dart, Democratic officeholders, or the press, and she also met privately with Stitt. The governor said, “Overall it went really good, and she’s pleased with Oklahoma and what we’ve done so far.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister posted on Facebook that Birx warned, “Oklahoma is about 4 weeks behind the South” and needs to “avoid asymptomatic spread which is happening in Southern states.” That cryptic comment didn’t make the headlines, or prompt a discussion of how would it be possible to reopen schools in counties where the virus was spreading.

Stitt characterized Birx’s advice as, “A lot of other states have shut down bars. That was a recommendation — it wasn’t a recommendation, but that was something she said, you’ve got to be ready if you see your positivities kick up that you can maybe limit bar capacity.”

Tulsa Public Radio challenged spin on the crucial question of how schools and colleges can open this month, adding, “Birx’s task force has, in fact, told Oklahoma it should shut down bars statewide, calling it ‘critical to disrupt transmission.’”

As school was starting, about 50 school sites were dealing with COVID infections; the first week of partial reopening, the number rose to over 100. If – as public health experts predict – asymptomatic children spread the virus to their classmates, teachers and school staff, and their families, parents should ask why they were not warned when Oklahoma entered the “red zone” around July 14.

Similarly, administrators can ask how they could have prepared differently for reopenings if they had been told about the effect of “community spread” on schools. The week before classes were scheduled to open, two school systems had to delay in-person instruction. Who knows how many of those wrenching adjustments will occur in the first weeks of school?

If they had known the full story presented in eight studies, many districts could have prioritized preparation for virtual over in-person instruction. Had administrators been told of the August 2 task force recommendation for a statewide mask mandate, and recommendations as early as July 5 on bars and indoor dining, would they have given different advice to their school boards on reopening? Had they known when the task force recommended that red zone counties limit social gatherings to ten people, would they have thought differently about school sports?

Administrators were already behind in preparing for school because as late as June many researchers still doubted that young people would spread the virus as much as older persons. It wasn’t until late July that experts were fully aware of the super-spreading by young people. And I would add that decision-makers should have considered the New York Times database. It estimated that on July 31 an average Oklahoma County school with 1,000 students would begin the year with 11 students with the virus.

Also, on July 23, the State Board of Education voted 4 to 3 to adopt the protocols presented by State Superintendent Hofmeister as recommendations – not mandates. Had they known what would be revealed in the recent recommendations for Oklahoma, would they have voted differently in terms of making masks mandatory in schools? Had the SDE guidelines on providing only virtual learning been discussed in communities that were fully aware of the task force’s recommendations on limiting the size of social groups, would they have thought differently about closing schools in the counties with the highest infections?

State Impact and the Oklahoman now report that only six of the 136 districts in counties at Orange Level 2 or the higher are starting the year with distance learning. The SDE can only “beg” districts to take unpopular public health actions and only 1/3rd of them mandate masks for students and teachers.

So shouldn’t the Board take another vote? And while they’re at it, they could order districts to report COVID infections to the Health Department.

Moreover, education and urban leaders, as well as state policy-makers should study the new reports within the context of perhaps a bigger threat – the reopening of colleges. Cities have no control over universities’ policies, but especially in areas that attract large numbers of college students who have failed to follow social distancing rules, cities could follow federal guidelines on closing bars and in-person dining. And if state leaders took these public health regulations seriously, they could have taken action with the hugely dangerous Weedstock concert near Oklahoma State University.

This summer’s misstatements of fact by the Stitt administration were serious because they undermined preparations for a safe reopening of schools. During a time of “alt facts,” however, it isn’t surprising that many Oklahomans didn’t demand fact checking of the governor. The release of the full facts occurs at a time when students are placed at risk, and schools will likely struggle with infections. Now that the full task force findings are released, parents, educators, and policy makers may bring a more informed mindset to their guidelines.
More importantly, though, will we take a more morally responsible look at the politics of school reopenings? Will we come to grips with the way that America placed politics over the health and safety of our kids, and pledge to never do that again?

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