This week, Whitney Bryen talks about how the latest COVID surge is affecting nursing home residents; Jennifer Palmer talks about the newly released school enrollment data; and Keaton Ross talks about his survey to learn more about Oklahoma’s criminal justice system from those who know it best. Ted Streuli hosts.

Vaccine Mandate to ‘Impact One-Third of Nursing Home Workforce’

In this 2020 file photo, a worker is seen entering Hillcrest Nursing Center in Moore. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Ted Streuli: Welcome to Long Story Short, sponsored by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. I’m Ted Streuli, the executive director at Oklahoma Watch. We’re a statewide nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative reporting. You are listening to our weekly podcast, which lets you hear directly from our journalists as they provide deeper insight into their recently published stories.

And this week I’m with Whitney Bryen who covers vulnerability for Oklahoma Watch since the COVID 19 pandemic began. Whitney covered the effect on Oklahoma’s nursing home residents. COVID is again threatening nursing home residents across the state where staff shortages were already at crisis levels even before the latestsurge, as those facilities are preparing for another exodus of staff as federal vaccine mandates go into for nursing home workers. Whitney, what’s looming for these facilities?

Whitney Bryen

Whitney Bryen: Well, like you said, Ted, these nursing homes are fighting the latest surge of COVID 19 and they’re doing it with a bare-bones staff. A lot of employees have left these facilities over the past couple of years because of the high stress during COVID and low pay. And now a mandate from the president will require nursing home staff to be vaccinated. So there’s another incentive for employees who don’t want the vaccine to leave and go find other jobs. So right now about 68% of nursing home employees are vaccinated. And that means that the new mandate’s going to impact about one-third of the workforce.

Ted Streuli: Okay. Now you mentioned that the vaccine mandate was that part of the Supreme Court rulings we saw earlier this month.

Whitney Bryen: There were a few mandates up for debate and, the court halted one mandate, for instance, that would vaccinate workers at large private businesses, but it allowed for a mandate that’s going to require (vaccinations for workers at) all facilities that receive federal funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. So that includes nursing homes. Some nursing home administrators are worried that staff are going to leave and take similar jobs at assisted living facilities or retirement communities, where employee are doing similar work but they’re not required to be vaccinated.

Ted Streuli: What’s the timeline for implementing those mandates?

Whitney Bryen: So we’re gonna see this starting to happen pretty quickly over the next couple of weeks here. Nursing home employees have to have their first vaccine by Feb. 14, and they should be fully vaccinated by March 15.

Ted Streuli: You’ve been keeping up with the infection reports for nursing homes. What are the latest numbers?

Whitney Bryen: Since March of 2020, at least 1,848 long-term residents and workers have died from COVID-19. And the majority of those are residents at these facilities. The state health department releases these counts in reports that come out every Wednesday. And thanks to a couple of tips this week, I’ve actually found a pretty significant discrepancy between the state’s numbers and the numbers that are being put out by a federal agency that oversees nursing homes. They’re reporting significantly more infections and deaths related to COVID than the state health department. So that’s actually something I’m looking into right now and plan to write some stories on in the future. So definitely check back to Oklahoma Watch, to our website for more information on that soon.

Ted Streuli: What else do listeners maybe need to know about how nursing homes or their loved ones who are nursing home residents might be affected during this latest surge?

Whitney Bryen: One thing I think is really unique to this surge as compared to what we’ve seen in the past couple of years is visitation. Visitation is still going to happen at facilities even as they’re experiencing outbreaks among their residents and staff. A year ago I spoke with the administrators at Beatles Nursing Home in Alva, and they were on complete lockdown. No visitors in and out. Residents were confined and isolated to their rooms because they had a severe outbreak that was killing residents and this is what they felt like they needed to do to protect them. But at this point there are laws that say nursing homes cannot shut down visitation. And so even as they’re facing these outbreaks this time around, visitors are still going to be allowed to see their loved ones in these facilities. Now it might look a little bit different than what it has looked like over the past couple of months. For instance, they might have to happen outdoors or in special rooms within the facilities. But we’re not going to see restrictions around allowing visitors to actually see their loved ones. Mental health has been a big concern around that the last couple of years.

Ted Streuli: I would think that was true for a lot of us that went through isolation periods during the pandemic. And we’re either isolated at home or wherever; that had to just be magnified for people living in nursing homes, wasn’t it?

Whitney Bryen: Absolutely. And we’ve heard that a lot over the last two years or so. So that’s something that’s been a big concern as much of a concern as the virus at this point. And that’s why visitation is going to continue.

Ted Streuli: Thanks, Whitney. Long Story Short is a weekly segment featuring discussion of top stories from Oklahoma Watch reporters. You can listen to the Long Story Short podcast and read all of our investigative work at www.oklahomawatch.org. I’m Ted Streuli. Thanks for listening.

Enrollment Data: Losing One-Third Of Your Students

An Epic Charter School administrative office building is seen on 122nd Street in northwest Oklahoma City. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Ted Streuli: This week I’m with Jennifer Palmer who covers education for Oklahoma Watch. Jennifer has been writing about school enrollment and collecting data on that. Why did you want to tackle that topic, Jennifer?

Jennifer Palmer

Jennifer Palmer: I love data, first of all, education data especially, but enrollment especially is the most basic data point. I think it tells us where kids are going and the last two years have been very unique and disruptive because of the pandemic. So I really wanted to see where those kids landed this year.

Ted Streuli: And what did you find out? What was the big takeaway?

Jennifer Palmer: The big takeaway for Oklahoma is that many kids did return. There was a big drop last year and this year we did see an uptick of a little under 1% back overall in public schools. Many of those were also in the younger grades —pre-K and kindergarten.

Ted Streuli: So if they came back that suggests they went somewhere, right. Where did they go during the pandemic?

Jennifer Palmer: Many kids, the younger kids, did not attend school last year. Ppre-K is optional. Kindergarten can be delayed by a year. And so a lot of parents chose to do that. There were also some families that chose to homeschool when they wouldn’t normally have done that because of the risk of being inside a public school with the virus. And, you know, some kids just were lost. I mean, honestly the schools didn’t know where they went.

Ted Streuli: Wow. What other trends stood out this year when you looked at that data?

Jennifer Palmer: Virtual school is a big one. You know, the virtual charter schools saw a pretty big increase last year and this year Epic (Charter School), the largest virtual school, saw its enrollment decreased by about 35%. And that’s actually 21,000 students.

Ted Streuli: Holy cow. So what’s, Epic’s total enrollment? (Do) you know, off the top of your head? We know it’s the biggest district in the state now, right?

Jennifer Palmer: I believe they’re at about 40,000, a little under 40,000.

Ted Streuli: Wow. So a third of those coming or going is a huge number. Did you get any sense of how they cope with that kind of influx and outflow? I would guess it’s easier for a virtual school than it is for a brick-and-mortar school, but I would think still you have to staff up for that. You have to have other resources. How do they handle that?

Jennifer Palmer: It’s still very difficult to prepare and I know they have had one round of layoffs. Some teachers were affected in that just to kind of right size what they called it, you know, their employment, their staffing numbers to match the number of kids.

Ted Streuli: And we had inflow and outflow too at traditional brick-and-mortar schools and in-person schools. How does that affect them? Because we also have teachers that were affected by the pandemic. How in the world do they maintain appropriate staffing levels and resources at those schools?

Jennifer Palmer: I think it was pretty difficult this year. You know, there wasn’t a lot of consensus. I think most school leaders assumed that many kids would come back this year. And for the most part that was true. Tthere was about 200 school districts out of our 525 or so that actually have rebounded to the 2019 numbers. So not only grew from last year, when it was down a little, but are above pre-COVID numbers.

Ted Streuli: Have you talked to anybody that gave you any idea, how that might affect a student’s learning process or their education? You know what I’m asking? I think it would be hard for an eight year old to be attending school and then be homeschooled or be out of the system altogether and then kind of suddenly back into it. Kids like routine so much. Have you gotten any feedback on how they’re affected by that sort of in and out the pandemic caused?

Jennifer Palmer: This has been a very unusual couple of years. The data has long shown, research has long shown that kids do better academically when they have that stability in their school system. And, you know, we have seen a trend over the last couple of years, and certainly now there’s a new law that allows more transfers, but there has been this trend toward more acceptance of moving schools,more frequently even within the same school year.

Ted Streuli: Wow. What, data set did you use for the story?

Jennifer Palmer: This is the Oct. 1 student count that comes from the state Department of Education. So every year on Oct. 1, all schools count how many students. This is literally just, you know, 1, 2, 3, the number of students. And they report that to the state Department of Education. They release it around the end of the year.

Ted Streuli: Thanks Jennifer. Long Story Short is a weekly segment featuring discussion of top stories from our Oklahoma Watch reporters. You can listen to the Long Story Short podcast and read all of our investigative reporting at www.oklahomawatch.org. I’m Ted Streuli. Thanks for listening.

Survey: ‘What’s Your Experience With the Criminal Justice System’

Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

Ted Streuli: And this week I’m with Keaton Ross, who covers criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Keaton, you’re working on a project that involves collecting survey responses. What’s that about?

Keaton Ross

Keaton Ross: So I’ve created a survey and you can find it online at oklahomawatch.org. The goal of that survey is to get responses from people across the state that have been impacted by our state’s justice system. Something I’ve discovered reporting over the past 18 months or so is that so much of our criminal justice system is local and county jails or police departments, city police departments. And I want to hear from people about their experience with those police departments and jails and whatnot.

Ted Streuli: What, what motivated you to create that survey?

Keaton Ross: I think it was just my realization focusing primarily on state prisons and what’s going on at the Legislature that there there’s stuff happening in rural parts of the state that perhaps I’m missing or don’t have my eye on. And I’m hoping to reach people, in addition to people who live in the major metropolitan areas, people in the rural area to hear what’s going on and what’s perhaps been undercovered in the media.

Ted Streuli: So what kind of people are you hoping to connect with? Are you just looking for people who have been involved with the system, who have been incarcerated at some point or spent a night in jail, or are you looking for a broader audience than that?

Keaton Ross: I’d say the audience is very broad. Of course someone, those who are justice-involved who maybe have a felony or misdemeanor conviction, it certainly applies to you if that’s the case, but also people who work in the justice system, whether it be in a prison, a jail, at a courthouse. I certainly want to hear your feedback about what’s going on and perhaps what needs to be changed. And even if you’ve, you’ve been a victim of a crime and perhaps feel that justice wasn’t served, the survey certainly applies to you.

Ted Streuli: I would think so many people fit under that umbrella somewhere, right? Everything from police officers to bail bondsman, to lawyers and judges, to bailiffs and court reporters. I mean, they’re just all kinds of different jobs that would have something to contribute to the survey wouldn’t they?

Keaton Ross: Definitely. The criminal justice system is really broad. You mentioned bail bondsman and the issue of bail reform. If perhaps there’s a case where someone is in jail because they can’t pay $100, $200, $500, that that would be something I’m interested in looking into. And even the issue of probation and parole, if someone is struggling to pay fines and fees related to that or the conditions of their supervised release are just hard to keep up with. Those are certainly the kinds of issues I’m interested in looking into and diving into.

Ted Streuli: (If) somebody goes to take the survey, what are they gonna find?

Keaton Ross: So the survey is seven to eight questions. It’s not long — probably 5, 10, 15 minutes to fill out. And it asks general questions about what your initial experience with the criminal justice system is, what your level of involvement is. And then it goes into some questions regarding what you think needs to happen at the state level to reform issues, perhaps what needs to happen at the local level. And then it asks some questions about whether or not you’d want us to contact you and asks for contact information and that sort of thing. But we won’t contact you unless you give the thumbs up on that.

Ted Streuli: When you’re hearing from readers and they’re giving you tips or feedback on stories, how often does that contact from readers turn into a story?

Keaton Ross: It happens all the time. Just looking back at stories I’ve done over the past year and a half or so, one story that comes to mind is when it was announced or I discovered through a tip that tablets were coming to our state prison system. But the flip side of that was just the high costs and fees associated with those tablets that fall onto incarcerated people and their families. So that was an issue I dived into. And also whenever COVID was rampant in our prison system, I got a lot of tips from people incarcerated and family members that helped inform my coverage. And I certainly appreciate (that).

Ted Streuli

Ted Streuli: That’s great. Thanks Keaton. Long Story Short is a weekly segment featuring discussion of top stories from Oklahoma Watch reporters. You can listen to the Long Story Short podcast and read all of our investigative work at www.oklahomawatch.org. I’m Ted Streuli, thanks for listening.

You’ve been listening to Long Story Short, a weekly podcast that helps you get deeper into the investigative stories reported by Oklahoma Watch, which you can find on the web at www.oklahomawatch.org. This podcast was made possible by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation, for which we’re grateful. For Oklahoma Watch, I’m Ted Streuli, thanks for listening.

Episodes of Long Story Short, sponsored by the Kirkpatrick Foundation, can also be found on podcast apps, including Apple PodcastsAmazonAudibleSpotify and Pandora. Search for Oklahoma Watch and subscribe.

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