Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story used an inaccurate comparison between a limited study in North Carolina with Oklahoma’s COVID-19 rate as a whole. The story has been updated.
The same day Gov. Kevin Stitt tweeted “kids are SAFE in schools” in a push to open classrooms statewide, Lawton teacher Janette Garton received an email.
“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart…” it began. The announcement said a teacher in her building had died.
The teacher, Joseph McKenzie, a U.S. Army veteran who taught math and coached soccer in Lawton Public Schools, died Jan. 6 due to complications of COVID-19 at age 59. A family member said he was not exposed at school.
News of his death shook Garton, who was already stressed from the risks of teaching in a pandemic that has killed nearly 3,000 Oklahomans. Like most teachers, she’s still not eligible to receive a vaccine — though she likely will be in the next few weeks as the state progresses through its phased rollout.
Her county is designated “red” under the state Education Department’s risk-level map and, along with most of the state, has been since mid-November. Schools in red counties, which have reported more than 50 positive cases per 100,000 residents, are recommended to pivot to virtual instruction. But her school is open.
“Most of us, we just feel like a cog in a machine,” Garton said. “It’s like: OK, one teacher died. Let’s just stick a sub in there.
“This is my 31st year teaching and I’ve never felt like this.”
By unanimous vote, the state board accredited Tulsa Public Schools with deficiencies, an improvement in status compared to last year, when it was accredited with warning
In his calls for schools to immediately bring students back to classrooms, Stitt insists it’s safe to do so. He has said virtual learning is not effective for young students, too many students are failing in distance learning, and “it’s not fair” for one district to have classrooms open while a neighboring district does not.
But, if Oklahoma was following its own school safety protocols crafted this summer, no schools would be in-person right now based on the latest data from the state Health Department.
To support his notion that schools should be in-person, Stitt has misconstrued a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, drawing swift rebuke from school leaders and others. He also unveiled a new policy loosening school quarantine requirements, contrary to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
Most Oklahoma schools are already open. But the Stitt administration is pursuing an aggressive push to immediately open the ones that aren’t, despite the state’s ranking as one of the worst for coronavirus spread based on test positivity rates and hospital admissions.
Stitt has ignored calls to implement a statewide mask mandate. But, so far, he has also refrained from requiring on-campus instruction, which Iowa, Arkansas, Florida and Texas have done, according to Education Week.
Instead, he’s pushing his agenda publicly on social media; since Jan. 6, Stitt has tweeted at least 18 times to say schools should be allowing students to attend in person right now.
He criticized Tulsa Public Schools’ recent decision to hold off on bringing students back until after spring break in March, tweeting on Jan. 15 that the school board’s decision was “based on politics instead of the data which clearly shows schools can be reopened safely.”
And despite his prior disparagement of Oklahoma City Public Schools’ leadership for remaining in distance learning for nearly all of the fall semester, in recent posts, he has applauded the district for beginning to phase-in some students part-time this week.
Oklahoma City Public Schools’ cautious approach is supported by a majority of its parents and teachers, according to a survey which found 82% of teachers and 63% of parents in December prefered all virtual or a blended schedule in January.
One thing Stitt and district leaders and educators seem to agree on is that teaching is done best live and in person. But educators say the governor’s insistence that schools are safe for children ignores the real risks facing the adults in the building.
More than 358,000 Oklahomans have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The state has experienced a surge in cases and deaths since Christmas and New Year’s and is now averaging about 3,000 positive cases a day.
Jami Cole, who teaches fifth grade in Duncan and moderates the Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook group with 63,000 members, said there could be a mass exodus of teachers coming.
A survey of teachers in December found more than one in four were planning to retire or leave the profession this year, according to the Oklahoma Education Association.
“I think it’s worse than before the walkout,” Cole said. “We were just angry then. Now we are scared and angry.”
The Politics of Reopening
Differing strategies on COVID-19 mitigation in schools has caused Stitt and his administration to clash with Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.
For one, she has tried to require masks in schools, but a majority of Stitt’s appointments to the Board of Education have not supported a mandate. The protocols were instead kept as recommendations.
In January, department staff presented Stitt with a potential compromise. The proposal would require in-person teaching and masks in schools statewide. He rejected it a day before the board was to vote on it, according to The Frontier.
Former employees of the state’s most elite public high school contend there’s a culture of harassment, gender discrimination and misogyny that’s been kept quiet with settlements, pay outs and intimidation.
While Stitt has been tweeting about how safe schools are, Hofmeister has drawn attention to the rise in COVID-19 cases among children.
Then came Stitt’s new quarantine policy, announced Jan. 12, in which he and the Health Department crafted without conferring with Hofmeister or the Education Department.
Under the new policy, students and teachers exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 can forgo quarantine if the exposure occurred in a classroom where everyone was masked and social distancing as long as the exposed person remains symptom-free. The person who tested positive still has to isolate.
Stitt said the change will encourage mask-wearing and social distancing and keep students in school.
Hofmeister responded in a statement: “I cannot in good conscience support ignoring quarantine guidelines from the CDC and other infectious disease experts. COVID is raging in Oklahoma. In-person instruction is critical, and so is mitigating the spread of the virus. They are not mutually exclusive.”
The policy was criticized by educators, House Democrats, superintendents in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and the Oklahoma chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which said Stitt misconstrued an AAP study to make his case for opening classrooms.
The study found COVID-19 transmission was rare in the schools studied and there were no instances of child-to-adult transmission. However, the schools were operating on a hybrid schedule with students attending twice a week, and the rate of community transmissions was 1 to 2 per 1,000 residents.
Oklahoma and North Carolina had roughly the same cumulative incidence of the virus per 100,000 people through early September, according to federal data. Since then, Oklahoma’s cumulative incidence rate has risen to 9,100 per 100,000 people, while North Carolina’s has grown to 6,400 per 100,000 people.
“The data referenced by Governor Stitt is based on a single study conducted in North Carolina in specific districts that strictly adhered to multiple mitigation strategies,” the Oklahoma AAP chapter wrote in a statement. “This is not consistent with the current COVID-19 surge in Oklahoma.”
House Republican lawmakers support the push, with more than 50 signing on to a joint statement that reads, in part, that the governor’s decision is “the right, safe thing to do for our children, their families and our state educators.”
The Quest To Be Vaccinated
A major issue, teachers say, is the vaccine is still out of reach to most teachers.
In mid-December, Stitt announced teachers and school staff would be moved up on the vaccine priority plan, a move that was widely applauded. But because of short supply, only a handful of teachers have been able to receive a vaccine.
Vaccines are expected to be made available to teachers in phase two of the state’s plan in the coming weeks, according to the state Health Department. Inoculation began in Tulsa Public Schools last week in conjunction with the Tulsa County Health Department.
“The race is on to be vaccinated. One way to possibly secure a vaccination is to start looking on every county health department’s Facebook pages to see if there are any openings,” the Professional Oklahoma Educators, an association for school personnel, told its members recently.
Frustrations bubbled over recently when Oklahoma County commissioner Carrie Blumert tweeted she had received the vaccine along with courthouse staff and other elected officials. Mary Murphy, a teacher in Oklahoma City, was the first to respond to the post.
“It just felt like another way the state was disrespecting teachers,” she said later. “And that’s why I got so frustrated.”
“I would drive across the state if I had to, that’s how badly I want it,” she added. As of Jan. 15, she’s still waiting.
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