Stitt puts $10 million toward school PPE, promises teacher testing
Oklahoma schools will receive $10 million in personal protective equipment and are expected to test teachers monthly for COVID-19.
Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Thursday the state would distribute 1.7 million reusable masks, 42,000 face shields, 1.2 million gloves and 1.2 million gowns to schools statewide. The total PPE package costs $10 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Stitt pledged to provide the necessary PPE for schools to reopen in person. He also signed an executive order directing state health and education agencies to collaborate on teacher testing.
The state will have a plan in place by Aug. 21 for monthly testing of educators, Stitt said.
“Our kids cannot miss another year of school,” Stitt said at a news conference Thursday. “Keeping schools closed for all students has many harmful consequences.”
All public schools in the state were ordered on March 16 to close and finish the academic year with distance learning.
The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management will distribute PPE to regional warehouses where school districts can pick up supplies. Stitt said his intent is to have the PPE dispersed across the state by Aug. 15.
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister did not attend the governor’s news conference Thursday, though Stitt said she was invited. The Oklahoma State Department of Education did not return a request for comment on the superintendent’s whereabouts.
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Hofmeister released a statement after the news conference thanking the governor for investing in school PPE.
“It is critical that every effort be made for our kids and teachers to return to school, and the evidence is clear that face masks – along with face shields, gloves and gowns – are crucial for that to happen,” Hofmeister said. “COVID-19 has created difficult decisions that require schools to offer families a number of instructional delivery options that best meet their needs.”
Stitt warned of a negative impact if schools don’t host in-person classes. He said families depend on school meals to feed their children, and a lack of face-to-face instruction could impair academic progress, particularly for disadvantaged students.
State Secretary of Human Services Justin Brown said teachers have a critical role in identifying signs of child abuse. Educators reported 767 cases of abuse and neglect in April 2019 but only 57 in April of this year.
“Hundreds of kids remain at home in unsafe conditions with nobody watching,” Brown said at the press conference.
The American Association of Pediatrics recommended schools aim for an in-person return. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also touted the benefits of face-to-face education, but said evidence is mixed as to whether reopening increases risk of coronavirus transmissions.
Statistical models in Europe have shown reopening schools could be more risky in communities where transmission is already high, though international evidence suggests schools are safe in areas with low rates, the CDC reported.
Early studies indicate children have a lower risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 when compared to adults, according to the CDC. However, children with certain underlying medical conditions are more likely to have severe symptoms.
Oklahoma’s only child death from COVID-19 occurred this month when Anna Carter, 13, died in Comanche County. Carter also suffered from juvenile scleroderma, an autoimmune disease.
More than 3,000 Oklahoma children between age 5 and 17 have tested positive for COVID-19, and 830 age 4 and younger have had confirmed cases.
By mid-July, nearly all school districts in the state were preparing to welcome students back to classrooms, but record-high cases of COVID-19 forced schools to reconsider whether to reopen traditionally.
Three of the largest school districts in the state — Putnam City, Oklahoma City and Tulsa Public Schools — have announced recommendations to start the first nine weeks of school virtually.
Oklahoma City Public Schools “cannot in good conscience” invite students and teachers back in person, Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown said during a school board meeting earlier this month.
Some teachers said they fear for their safety if they return.
A survey taken June 1-9 of the state’s largest teacher union found 81% of members were at least somewhat concerned about their health at the thought of working in a school environment. The Oklahoma Education Association survey found 34% of their members were very concerned.
Now, as cases of COVID-19 surpass 35,700 and deaths exceed 500 in Oklahoma, at least 20 teachers per day have contacted OEA legal services this month for help drafting a will, President Alicia Priest told The Oklahoman.
“Whether they’re healthy or have underlying health issues, they’re afraid because there aren’t mandates in place to keep them safe,” Priest said.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education opted to recommend, but not require, school COVID-19 precautions. A COVID-19 Alert System advises schools when to mandate masks and consider closing based on county per-capita data.
However, the state board decided local districts should have the final say and declined to make the alert system mandatory.
Four counties — Jackson, McCurtain, Adair and Pushmataha — have reached the level when the Oklahoma State Department of Education recommends schools close and have students learn at home, as each recorded more than 25 cases per 100,000 people.
But public schools in those counties are still set to reopen next month.
Idabel Public Schools in McCurtain County will have a week of virtual learning before face-to-face classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 31, Superintendent Doug Brown said. Some students have enrolled in the district’s full-time virtual curriculum.
About 70% of surveyed Idabel parents said they wanted their children back in school, and a similar majority of teachers wanted to return, Brown said.
“Our community wants to go ahead and move forward; our teachers want to go ahead and move forward,” he said. “If the numbers don’t go down, then we’ll have to re-examine that plan and look at continuing virtual (learning) on the 31st.”