OKLAHOMA CITY — The state’s largest teacher’s union urged state leaders Thursday to take stronger action to ensure schools are safe for teachers, students and their families when they reopen next month.

“We need our state leaders to set clear guidelines of what is expected within our schools, rather than a patchwork of conflicting policies from one district to the next,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

Priest said it’s time for state leaders to stop pushing decision-making on local leaders. She said school districts can’t even afford to hire nurses, let alone epidemiologists.

“Hard decisions were made in March, and we believe those decisions saved lives,” Priest said. “It’s time to make hard decisions again. If Oklahomans want school to start, Oklahoma’s leaders need to make those hard decisions now.”

Priest said the day the state shut down schools in March and switched to remote learning, Oklahoma had 164 new COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, the state reported a record-setting 1,075 new cases.

Situation remains fluid

Education advocates said the state’s COVID-19 cases are rising, not falling, and the state is no longer flattening its case curve. They also noted that the state suffered its first school-aged death in the past week — a 13-year-old girl whose family is stationed at Fort Sill.

Priest said state leaders must mandate mask wearing at school; provide schools with personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and adequate cleaning supplies; establish clear protocols on when to shut down a school site or district; and dictate how districts should handle overcrowded school buildings and classrooms packed with 35 children. State leaders also must provide every school basic health supplies like touchless thermometers.

“If we don’t address these basic needs, we’re not ready to go back to school,” Priest said. “We are willing to teach and learn in safe environments, and just like this spring, we are ready to do what it takes to teach our kids. But safety must be our first priority. If it’s not, children will die. Educators will die.”

Priest said her organization is getting dozens of requests each day from teachers and staff who want to draw up wills before they return to work.

“There are some of our colleagues who are literally planning for their deaths,” she said.

In Norman, administrators said early this week that they had not been receiving sufficient reopening guidance from public education officials. Norman Public Schools Superintendent Nick Migliorino expressed frustration at a Tuesday board meeting, asking for help from state leadership as his district and others try to plan for the fall.

“We have created this framework...without what I would call appropriate direction and leadership from the highest levels of our state, and I’m just going to say that out loud: We really need guidance,” Migliorino said. “If you look across the state at all of the school districts that have come out and put plans out, there is not one that hasn’t had an uprising on one side or another. There’s a reason for that, and it’s because there’s not a consistent message and plan given to all of us, and that is where I am disappointed.”

Joy Hofmeister, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the safety of every student, teacher and staff in public schools “weighs heavily on our hearts and minds as we have been consumed with detailed planning for the next school year.”

She said districts recently received $145 million in federal relief funding to use for responding to the pandemic, and the State Department of Education is working actively to secure additional funds for personal protective equipment and other critical needs, but the situation remains fluid.

“COVID-19 cases are rising and the (agency) is in close communication with the state Department of Health and other trusted public health experts to find the most appropriate course of action, but the fact is community transmission of the virus varies widely throughout Oklahoma,” Hofmeister said. “Districts can and should act on the situation in their respective areas with consultation from local and state health officials — and we have been deeply involved in the work of developing a multitiered safety protocol response that corresponds with the path of the virus."

‘This is a big deal, guys'

Morgan McClellan, a senior at Rattan High School in southeastern Oklahoma, said she’s ready to return to in-person instruction.

“I know a lot of students do better when they’re able to ask their teachers face-to-face questions,” she said. “I like the routine that school gives me.”

McClellan said she found herself procrastinating when she was learning online in the spring, and isn’t really sure she understood what was being taught.

McClellan said districts need to implement realistic precautions like enforcing handwashing and requiring masks.

“Reopening schools is a risk that is worth taking as long as we take those necessary precautions,” she said.

Renée Jerden, a choir teacher at Irving Middle School in Norman, said that while online education during distance learning presented new challenges, she’s concerned about the push to get teachers back to in-person instruction.

In the conversation about reopening schools, Jerden said she feels "like teachers once again don’t matter,” and that if teachers were as valuable as their states and districts say they are, they would receive more resources, funding and respect.

“We are not free babysitting — it is not our job to be the human shield for the rest of the world,” Jerden said. “I hate to say that because I love my students so much and I want to keep them safe, and it is so much about the students and their safety, and their education is really, really important, but we can’t forget the teachers in this, and the families of the teachers that are being exposed when they come home after being in a petri dish. We can’t forget that, and if I am terrified, how am I supposed to do my job?”

Dr. Dwight Sublett, a Stillwater pediatrician and president of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge in that it’s very contagious and still relatively unknown.

He said the academy recommends leaders look at the science of the virus and the updated data each day to help shape decision making.

“This is not just a simple flu or cold,” Sublett said. “This is a big deal, guys, and we must treat it as such.”

He said pediatrician’s offices during the fall and winter months are filled with children who have flus, colds, strep throats and respiratory illnesses like pneumonia.

“If you couple that with COVID, that’s a recipe for disaster,” he said. “Let’s look at it like we’re staring a Level 5 tornado in the face. We’ve got to be flexible and be able to move.”

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

Transcript Staff Writer Emma Keith contributed to this report.

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