Although Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration provided about $10 million in personal protective equipment to Oklahoma school districts in August, some superintendents ultimately expressed frustration over the timing.
Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the allocation of $10 million in COVID-19 relief funds to purchase PPE for school districts in July, which included about 1.7 million washable cloth masks, 42,000 clear face shields, 1.2 million pairs of disposable gloves, and 1.2 million disposable gowns. The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management distributed the PPE.
However, some district officials say the state-provided PPE came too late, as they had already gone through their budgets to find money to purchase such items themselves.
Jason James, chief operating officer for Lawton Public Schools, said the district spent more than $1 million in PPE for students and faculty.
“The timing was frustrating,” James said. “We spent over $1 million ordering our own personal protective equipment for our kids and staff to ensure that we could get it delivered in time. Three weeks after we sign the contract with equipment, the governor comes out and says he’s going to give us this PPE.”
James said if the district had been aware of the state’s plan to distribute PPE, they may have made different decisions, especially with resources being so tight.
James also said he does not recall any kind of request for input on what supplies the district actually needed.
According to data provided to NonDoc by the Department of Emergency Management, Lawton Public Schools ended up receiving 20,161 child masks, 11,656 adult masks, 52,800 pairs of gloves, 911 face shields and 26,160 gowns.
Enrollment totals for FY19/20 show that Lawton is a district of 13,679 students.
“It would’ve been a lot easier for Lawton Public Schools if we had been allocated that money and told to buy our own personal protective equipment instead of being given what somebody else thought we needed,” James said. “We got 30,000 hospital gowns that we don’t have a use for. That money was basically wasted. We tried to give them away to the hospital, but the hospital couldn’t use them because they’re not hospital grade quality.”
James also said he wished the pallet and a half of hand sanitizer hadn’t been delivered in glass bottles, which he thinks are dangerous to have in classroom settings.
‘Everybody wishes that it could’ve been sooner’
Carolyn Thompson, the Oklahoma State Department of Education chief of government affairs, said that while the Department of Education didn’t directly purchase the PPE, it did work with the governor’s office to provide a list of needs for each school district.
“Our role was determining how much and where it should go,” Thompson said. “There was a survey we used to make the case to the governor’s office that we needed PPE, but that’s not what we used to determine the distribution.”
Although the survey completed by school districts over the summer demonstrated the need for PPE, Thompson said the Department of Education didn’t feel the information gathered from the quick survey was illustrative enough to inform purchasing decisions. The determination for the exact amount of PPE distributed to each district was made based off the district’s enrollment and school personnel numbers for the previous year.
“We know kids move around and that there have been many shifts since last school year, but that was the most current and best data that we had to go off of,” Thompson said. “It’s not a perfect formula, but it was the best formula that we had available to us at the time.”
The state ended up distributing enough cloth face masks for each student and staff member to have two. Thompson said the 1.2 million disposable gowns were distributed to provide extra protection for custodians, medical personnel and special education teachers.
Thompson said she realizes the timing of the state-provided PPE wasn’t perfect, but hopes the supplies were still helpful to school districts.
“The governor got approval for the state CARES Act fund fairly late into the summer,” Thompson said. “I think everybody wishes that it could’ve been sooner, but I do think it was done as quickly as possible. Our office realizes that the timing wasn’t perfect, but hopefully it was still helpful.”
Charlie Hannema, chief of communications for the governor’s office, said the purchase and distribution of the PPE was designed to supplement existing district inventory and was based on information provided by the Department of Education. He said many districts were grateful for the additional support.
“Oklahoma school districts received $145 million in CARES Act funding in May to help cover additional COVID-19 expenses including the purchase of PPE or cleaning supplies,” Hannema said. “Gov. Stitt announced July 30 he was committing an additional $10 million toward PPE to ensure students could return to class in person.”
Hannema said the state also sent additional supplies to school districts after the initial distribution.
“The state sent districts another shipment of masks and other items directly received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services approximately one month later,” Hannema said.
‘The stuff we got from the state wasn’t very good quality’
While grateful for the state-provided PPE, El Reno Public Schools Superintendent Craig McVay expressed similar concerns as James.
“It was too little too late,” McVay said. “Our biggest issue is that four months ago we bought masks, hand sanitizer and face shields for our staff and faculty. We were pretty much ahead of the game. Then, the stuff we got from the state wasn’t very good quality.”
He said his staff was less than enthused to use the state-provided equipment. El Reno Public Schools received 4,014 child masks, 2,616 adult masks, 900 small gloves, 3,000 medium gloves, 3,700 large gloves, 4,600 extra-large gloves, 189 face shields and 6,170 disposable gowns from the state. El Reno was a district of about 3,000 students in FY19/20.
“In early April, when we started planning for our return, we were working with a local distributor on hand sanitizer,” McVay said. “We decided in our district, when we came back, that we wanted to have enough hand sanitizer to put a distribution point in every classroom.”
The district also distributed a supply of masks to teaching staff.
“Sometime after the first couple weeks of school, we got the supplies from the governor, and that’s been supplementing where we need it since then.”
Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace said their district began classes Aug. 13 and that they started purchasing supplies like face masks, shields and cleaning supplies for teachers and staff over the summer.
“There were school districts that had not started (the school year) when the PPE came in or perhaps were just getting started. For us, we had been in school for quite a while before that stuff arrived,” Grace said. “If we could’ve had that opportunity much sooner, we could’ve saved some of that money we spent. But we were determined to provide what was needed by our staff.”
Grace said the PPE sent by the state ended up filling in the gaps of what her district had already purchased. Shawnee Schools received 4,950 child masks, 3,454 adult masks, 1,200 small gloves, 4,200 medium gloves, 5,000 large gloves 6,200 extra-large gloves, 275 face shields and 8,440 disposable gowns from the state. In FY19/20 Shawnee was a district of 3,642 students.
“We didn’t order masks for every single student, so where the governor’s PPE came in for us specifically was helping provide those masks for students,” Grace said.
Future state PPE distribution undetermined
Thompson said that a distribution plan for the state to provide PPE to schools during the spring semester is not yet in the works and is contingent on federal relief.
She said the Oklahoma State Department of Education doesn’t have money in its budget to purchase PPE for each school district, and if there is no federal relief, the responsibility to purchase PPE will likely be on the districts.
The amount of state-provided PPE purchased for the fall was estimated to be enough to get schools through the first semester and is expected to be exhausted by the time students leave for Christmas break.
“I do think there is likely a need for that next semester, but unfortunately we don’t have word yet on another federal relief package,” Thompson said. “Should that come to fruition then we certainly would be able to make the case again for additional PPE for schools, and we’re hoping that it does.”
Hannema, the governor’s communications chief, also said additional PPE distribution plans have not been determined.
James said he appreciates the efforts put forth by the state to keep students and staff healthy, but he hopes that if there is another distribution of PPE, districts’ actual needs will be assessed.
“It would have been much more efficient and a better use of taxpayer dollars if they would’ve allocated that money to Lawton Schools and let us buy our own PPE,” James said. “We would’ve gotten more use out of our PPE that way.”
List of school PPE allocations
To download a spreadsheet of Oklahoma’s PPE allocations to public school districts, click here.