Oklahoma will spend $10 million to purchase personal protective equipment for public and private schools so they are better able to “open safely and teach students in-person this fall,” Gov. Kevin Stitt announced this afternoon. In addition to PPE purchases, Stitt said he is issuing a new executive order directing the State Department of Health and State Department of Education to prepare a plan by Aug. 21 to test all state teachers for COVID-19 on a monthly basis.
When the executive order language was released, it required that “at a minimum” the OSDE and OSDH must plan for “optional monthly” COVID-19 testing for every teacher and support employee, with priority given to professionals working inside school buildings.
“Schools are an essential part of our society,” Stitt said. “It is critically important that they operate safely and effectively for all students. Our kids cannot miss another year of school.”
Stitt and other speakers said they expect students’ future test scores will show that they experienced an elongated “summer slide” after the spring 2020 semester was abruptly derailed by the pandemic.
“We know that many students have suffered even further learning losses when you add in the virtual end to our school year in (spring) 2020,” said Rep. Sherrie Conley (R-Newcastle). “As a 26-year educator, I understand what it means and the value of having students in the classroom with the teacher in front of them. There are other things that schools offer that are much more than just curriculum.”
That point was echoed by pastor Philip Abode, executive director of the all-male Crossover Bible Preparatory Academy in Tulsa.
“Some of our students come to us without a lot of positive male role models in their lives, and their relationships they get to build with our mainly-male staff won’t be as strong in an online setting,” Abode said.
Abode said Stitt’s commitment of PPE for schools will “allow us to continue our fight against the achievement gap that exists in our education system.”
Department of Human Services director Justin Brown emphasized the value of students returning to in-person classes by saying social changes related to the pandemic have increased domestic violence reports and exacerbated food insecurity issues.
“The impacts are disproportionate to low-income and minority communities, and we believe they are generational and devastating,” Brown said.
Stitt: ‘We believe in local decisions’
Across the state, school districts are pursuing a mish-mash of policies and plans. Oklahoma City Public Schools has delayed the start of its school year to Aug. 31, and OKCPS will also conduct its first nine weeks via distance learning only. Edmond Public Schools, on the other hand, will start Aug. 20 with a “blended” learning model.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted 4-3 against a proposal from Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister to tie mandatory levels of campus openings to the Department of Health’s county COVID-19 color-coded map. Instead, the board voted to implement recommendations and guidelines while leaving final decisions to local school boards.
“We believe in local decisions, so that’s why we are leaving that up to local school boards who are elected and the local superintendents who are hired,” Stitt said. “Dover, Oklahoma, has different situations, Hollis, Oklahoma, has different situations, Jenks, Oklahoma, has different situations.”
Hofmeister was not in attendance, though Stitt said she had been invited. She released a statement after the event.
“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. We thank Gov. Stitt and his team for their work in helping to provide PPE to our schools.“
Despite the positivity of Thursday’s press conference speakers, many parents, educators and community leaders have expressed hesitancy or outright frustration about reopening schools in the fall. Although one Oklahoma child with a complicating illness has died after contracting SARS-CoV-2, the resultant COVID-19 condition is substantially more serious and fatal among older people, especially those age 65 and above.
In Oklahoma, more than 21 percent of teachers are age 55 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Dover Superintendent Max Thomas joined Stitt’s press conference and said his 170-student district’s plan would require anyone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus to be away from campus for 10 school days.
“In Dover, we offer three options, and I can tell you the option we recommend is on-site learning,” Thomas said. “We also offer online, and we offer a blended option that allows students to learn only but participate in sports and other activities.”
PPE back in the spotlight
Thursday’s press conference marked Stitt’s first in-person appearance before the state press corps since he announced July 15 that he was quarantined with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. He said he was “feeling great” and was not wearing a mask because “I’ve already had COVID.”
Early in the pandemic’s spread, access to PPE was a critical and controversial issue in Oklahoma and around the country, as much of America’s supply chain for personal protective equipment stemmed from China, which was using extraordinary amounts of PPE after the novel coronavirus originated from the Hubei province there.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office requested an audit of the State Department of Health, and the Stitt administration’s purchases of PPE have been questioned by some. By mid-May, Oklahoma had spent more than $42 million on PPE and testing supplies. The federal government has supplied states with additional funding for such efforts.
Stitt said Thursday that the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management would oversee distribution of PPE for schools, with districts instructed to pick up supplies at regional warehouses.
Stitt said the $10 million purchase will include:
- 1.7 million reusable masks (allowing two per teacher and two per student)
- 1.2 million disposable gloves
- 1.2 million disposable gowns
- 42,000 plastic face shields
The numbers were suggested by the Department of Education, the governor said.
Stitt has seven children, some of whom attend public school and some of whom attend private school, according to a spokesperson.
(Update: This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. Thursday, July 30, to include Hofmeister’s statement. It was updated again to link and reference the executive order language.)