State agency workers can soon begin substitute teaching under a new program announced Tuesday by Governor Kevin Stitt to help schools struggling with absences to COVID-19. 

Stitt issued an executive order, paving the way for workers to fill in classrooms during their regular work hours. 

Read the Executive Order

“Students deserve and need the right to an in-person education, and the state has a responsibility to ensure that right remains intact. The alternatives — closure of schools and/or virtual classrooms in lieu of in-person teaching — adversely impact our children’s futures, parents’ ability to work and provide for their families, and our economy,” the order reads. 

Workers will continue to receive their normal pay and benefits while in the classroom so that districts will not have to pay them. The substitutes will still be required to undergo a background check. 

The order doesn’t specify how many hours an employee can dedicate to substitute teaching, but says it should be for “an appropriate and necessary duration and throughout such times that critical work of an employee’s respective agency will not be negatively impacted.” 

“I’m asking all state employees to see what they can do because in-person learning is so, so important for the future of that specific child, but also for the state of Oklahoma,” Stitt said during a press conference announcing the executive order. 

The order expires after 120 days. 

Secretary of Education Ryan Walters will lead the initiative. Walters is an educator who teaches a virtual class for McAlester High School and the executive director of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, a private organization. He was appointed by Stitt in 2020. 

Last week, Walters offended educators and school administrators with his comments about school closings on social media. “The first reaction should not be to shut schools down. It is the last resort. Parents are tired and children suffer when administrators act out of fear and not in the best interests of their kids and their future,” he wrote.

The next day, he spent two hours substituting at Santa Fe South charter school in Oklahoma City, according to news reports

Additionally, the State Chamber will ask businesses to partner with local schools for a “Guest Educator” program, providing additional substitutes. 

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, a teacher turned lawmaker, called the plan “short-sighted.” 

“The executive order shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem,” Hicks said in a statement. “It diminishes teachers’ contributions and expertise in the field of education, undermines the safety of our classrooms and ignores the complexity involved in educating a child.”

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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