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'Is it worth it?': Area teachers worry about returning to classrooms during height of pandemic uncertainty

The first time Rachel Langley considered quitting teaching was in 1998 after a school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, violated her sense of security.

The second time is now, with her security once again in jeopardy as the start of school approaches and the state’s COVID-19 numbers continue to climb.

Langley, who teaches physics at Jenks High School, suffers from an autoimmune disease and worries that returning to the classroom could be especially dangerous. Now she has to decide whether she wants to risk everything to continue making a difference in her students’ lives.

“There’s been a lot of tears and a lot of soul-searching,” Langley said. “I’m not paid poorly, but I could get a job at Reasor’s and do almost as well. So at what point is it worth it?”

Educators across the metro and state are struggling to weigh the desire to see their students against the risk of infecting themselves and their families by going back to school during an ongoing pandemic.

The Oklahoma Education Association has received numerous requests from teachers to have free wills drawn up by the union’s legal team in recent weeks.

Lisa Wada, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Tulsa MET Junior and High School, wanted a will in addition to life insurance because she is diabetic and at higher risk of experiencing serious complications from COVID. She said she wants her family to be taken care of in case something happens.

But Wada also worries about spreading the disease to her asthmatic husband and her elderly parents, who live next door.

“I have to be very careful about what I choose to do,” Wada said.

Luckily, she added, Tulsa Public Schools is requiring students and employees to wear masks in the fall — though that can be a hard rule to enforce with teenagers.

There’s also the option of choosing to teach in the district’s new virtual academy instead of in the classroom this year. TPS is prioritizing high-risk teachers for the academy, which was created to help families who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids back to school yet.

One thing Wada learned during the spring semester, however, is that she hates teaching virtually. Distance learning doesn’t provide the same connection to students as does teaching in person.

“I’m balancing the risk (of infection) with wanting to be back in the classroom,” she said. “It’s a fine balancing act.”

If Will Rogers High School teacher Emily Harris had to choose today whether to start the year in person or through distance learning, she would choose the latter.

Harris may be 28 and healthy, but she said she also has a family to think about — including a 1-year-old.

Distance learning was an “incredibly difficult” experience for the teacher. She remembers feeling frustrated by the lack of engagement from students and struggling to figure out how to be effective outside of face-to-face settings.

Still, Harris thinks it’s the safest option at this point.

“I think that distance learning 100% would be the best way to go,” she said. Even if it means less engagement than being in school 100% of the time, people would be safe. And that’s the most important thing.”

Tulsa Classroom Teacher Association President Shawna Mott-Wright said she fields questions every day from educators overwhelmed with anxiety due to potentially having to go back to school before the pandemic subsides. Many are in tears when they call.

Some are immunocompromised. Others have family members they want to protect.

The problem, Mott-Wright said, is that teachers have no way of knowing whether everyone in their classroom is COVID-free. Schools can have 100 people who have the disease but don’t realize they’re infected.

“Our kids are already bringing a lot to school with them, whether it be trauma or hunger,” she said. “And then there’s physical sicknesses and things like that. So right now especially, these questions become even more important. What are they going to bring with them, and do they know they’re bringing it? What if the entire family has it and is asymptomatic? They don’t know they’re spreading it. That’s the problem with this virus.”

Although Mott-Wright said she and other teachers “desperately” want to see their students and for education to return to normal, she believes it isn’t worth endangering the lives of students, educators and their families.

She continues to urge TPS to follow in Oklahoma City Public Schools’ footsteps by committing to 100% distance learning for at least the first nine weeks instead of returning to in-person instruction prematurely. The district will decide how it reopens — face to face, remotely or a combination of both — on Aug. 3.

If the school district opts for in-person instruction, Mott-Wright warns there will be a “strong response from teachers,” though she did not elaborate on what that would look like.

“I will put it this way,” she said. “We didn’t have enough teachers before COVID. You certainly won’t have enough teachers during COVID to go back face-to-face until we know without a doubt it is safe for all students and teachers, support professionals, administrators and our families and community.”

Kay Lynn Honeywell, who teaches at Liberty STEM Elementary in Sapulpa and is vice president of her district’s teacher union, also feels apprehensive about going back to the classroom because she is diabetic.

But Honeywell said she’s conflicted about whether schools should reopen in person or remotely in August, adding that there are so many aspects to consider.

“When I think of our children from a social aspect, I’m extremely concerned about them not being in school and having that social interaction with their peers and with their teachers,” she said. “Because outside of the academic learning, that social and emotional piece is huge in public school. We don’t want to raise a generation of students who are asocial and don’t know how to work and interact with others unless there’s a screen between them.”

On the other hand, Honeywell said she wouldn’t feel comfortable sending a child with health issues to school with the threat of COVID-19 looming over them.

Many districts, including Sapulpa, have not yet announced whether masks will be required this school year. Honeywell said she was disappointed that the state education board on Thursday voted against issuing a series of virus safety mandates that would have necessitated the use of masks in most schools.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister had proposed the safety protocols and expressed frustration at the board’s decision to not make them mandatory.

Following the meeting, Hofmeister told the Tulsa World that not enough is being done to protect education employees during the ongoing pandemic.

“This is a public health crisis that needs a state response,” she said. “Today was a setback at a time when schools and teachers need clear and sound directive at the state level.”

Educators are most worried about schools not requiring the use of masks, Hofmeister said. The State Education Department has received numerous calls and messages from families pleading for strict safety protocols to protect loved ones who are immunocompromised.

Hofmeister said 7,000 teachers across Oklahoma are eligible to retire this year. She believes many of them will choose to do so if they don’t feel safe at school. The state’s proposal, she said, could have given them the assurance to stay.

“I don’t want them to put themselves in harm’s way, and I don’t want them to retire,” she said. “I don’t want them to leave. We could work to lower risk and make it work, and the time to do that is in July because we have weeks until schools open that we can use to gear up and get the needed protective gear, masks, whatever is needed.

“Yet we’re losing this window of opportunity, and unfortunately that will have consequences with our ability to open schools. Kids need to be in school, but we have a duty to mitigate risk. That did not happen at the state board meeting, against my objection.”

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State's legal fees in Stitt's tribal gaming flap top $1.5 million

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office has spent more than $1.5 million in legal and other fees in a flap with tribes over gaming compacts.

The costs are expected to rise.

The figure includes costs for attorneys hired to defend Stitt against a Dec. 31 federal lawsuit filed by several tribes.

Stitt alleges the gaming compacts expired Jan. 1 and that Class III gaming, which includes slot machines, roulette and craps, is now illegal. He is seeking higher fees.

The tribes allege the compacts automatically renewed.

Tribes pay the state fees ranging from 4% to 10% in exchange for the right to operate exclusive games.

A federal judge is poised to rule on the matter.

The nearly $1.5 million includes: $746,345.92 to Ryan Whaley for litigation preparation, management of multi-party litigation, mediation and compact negotiations; $275,548.30 to Lytle Soule & Felty for litigation preparation, mediation and compact negotiations; $252,614.37 to Revelation Consulting for mediation and compact negotiations; and $9,975 to Perkins Coie for compact negotiations.

The figures were provided by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

The state also paid Dykema Gossett of Lansing, Michigan, $216,816.12, according to Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office.

The firm was hired to represent the state in negotiating compacts and related agreements with the tribes, drafting related legislation and regulations and for the prosecution or defense of a related proceeding or matter.

The funds came out of Hunter’s office, who was negotiating on Stitt’s behalf.

Stitt initially tapped Hunter to be the lead negotiator on the compacts, but the two parted ways on Dec. 16.

“In each instance, Gov. Stitt was sued by other parties and was forced to hire outside counsel because the Attorney General’s office, which would normally represent the State in such a case, declined to represent the governor and the state in the tribal litigation in state and federal court,” Baylee Lakey, Stitt’s communications director, said in a statement.

Alex Gerszewski, a Hunter spokesman, said Lakey’s characterization of Hunter declining to represent the state is “completely inaccurate.”

When the governor takes a position inconsistent with the advice of the attorney general, or contrary to the law, the attorney general cannot continue to represent the governor in the matter, Gerszewski said.

“Had the governor allowed the attorney general to finish his work, the state could have avoided court all together and the million dollars plus, and climbing, price tag the governor has now burdened the state with,” Gerszewski said.

Hunter remains ready to resume involvement with the compact negotiations, Gerszewski said.

Lakey said Stitt’s legal staff consists of two attorneys who are occupied full time with other matters and do not have the expertise for that type of litigation.

“Because these expenses were associated with the administration of the tribal gaming compacts, the expenses were paid for out of a specific fund established for the administration of tribal gaming,” Lakey said.

Under the compacts, each gaming tribe pays an annual assessment of $35,000 to cover the state’s costs for oversight of covered games.

In addition, tribes pay a one-time $50,000 startup assessment to help the state with administrative and oversight responsibilities.

The $1.5 million does not include the costs Stitt incurred to defend two lawsuits filed by legislative leaders in the Oklahoma Supreme Court concerning compacts he recently signed.

One successfully challenged two compacts Stitt signed with the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribes.

The court ruled they were invalid because they bound the state to games not found in state law.

The other similar suit is pending.

The cost to the legislature is $52,824.40 for bringing the suit, according to House staff.

More invoices are expected, but the additional costs are not expected to be significant, said John Estus, a spokesman for House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka.

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Tulsa County has approved for allocation more than $57 million in federal COVID relief funding

Three months after receiving nearly $114 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for distribution, Tulsa County has approved the expenditure of 51% of the money.

The county received $113.7 million from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security — or CARES — Act in late April. As of Friday, the Board of County Commissioners had approved $57.8 million in allocations.

“I think we’ve pushed it out in a remarkable amount of time,” said County Commission Chairman Ron Peters. “I‘m pleased with the effort of everyone involved.”

Thirty million dollars of the approved funding is going to the county’s RESET program. The Resources to Empower Small Enterprises for Tomorrow program provides $25 million in forgivable loans to small businesses and $5 million in grants to nonprofits.

Peters said Tulsa Economic Development Corp., which is administering the RESET program, has already received 500 funding applications from small businesses. The county has approved 19 applications for about $1 million, with approximately 30 more applications totaling $3 million to be considered by the Board of County Commissioners on Monday.

“It’s been a very good partnership,” Peters said of TEDC’S involvement in the program. “Our intent was to get it out as fast as we could because we know people are hurting out there terribly bad.

“But at the same time we had to screen them to make sure they’re qualified, or else at the end of the day the feds are going to come back to us and say you have to give this money back because people didn’t qualify.”

The CARES Act relief funds arrived in the county’s bank account with little instruction from the U.S. Treasury regarding how the money could be spent or to whom it could be awarded, leading to a slight delay in distribution, Peters said.

“First it was, ‘What would a reasonable expense be to a reasonable person to combat the impacts of COVID?’” he said.

The county eventually received more guidance from the federal government and, with assistance of the District Attorney’s Office, determined what entities it could provide funding to and what criteria those organizations would have to meet to be eligible for assistance.

“It has to be COVID-related and has to have happened between March 1 and Dec 30, on an item that wasn’t budgeted previously because no one knew this was coming, or if it was budgeted but it went over because of the virus,” Peters said.

The first allocations went to the Tulsa County entities, including the jail and the Election Board, followed by more than a $1 million in funding for local municipalities.

“We had the nine cities in Tulsa County that had already spent a lot of their money and looked like to us like it might be a long time before some of them got reimbursed, so we spent $1 million reimbursing the nine cities, actually 10 cities counting the city of Tulsa … until they could apply to the state for their funding,” Peters said.

The county’s next priority was county-affiliated organizations such as the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, Tulsa Housing Authority and Tulsa Health Department. THD is using the funding to cover personal costs related to testing and tracing, Peters said, and TAEMA has used much of its funding to purchase personal protective equipment.

“By having them buy everything in bulk, when people come to us and ask for money for personal protective equipment, we can say, ‘Go to TAEMA and get your PPEs,’” Peters said. “It costs us about half of what it would cost us to just fund that directly.”

Nonprofits eligible for funding under the RESET program are those providing services to people. But Peters said other types of nonprofits, such as museums, VFWs and historical societies, will also be considered for funding through the county’s normal distribution program.

Applications for funding are reviewed each Thursday by a review committee made up of County Clerk Michael Willis, County Commission Chief Deputies Mike Craddock and Keri Fothergill, Director of Government Affairs Terry Simonson, and Peters. The BOCC votes on the review board’s recommendations for funding each Monday.

“The No. 1 question we always ask ourselves first is, ‘Is it COVID related? Or did someone just see a big pot of money out there and want to ask for it?’” Peters said.

The urgent need for funding has led some people to complain that the county has been too slow in distributing the funds or that the process is too cumbersome.

But Willis said the county has a responsibility to taxpayers to vet each application carefully.

“We are trying to strike the balance of addressing needs as quickly as we can because we know there are crises and emergency needs,” Willis said. “But at the same time, because these are federal funds and because they are taxpayer dollars, we have to do our due diligence to ensure the dollars are going to where they are supposed to go.”

Jeff Hall, Tulsa Housing Authority vice president of strategic planning, said that like any other organization, THA would have loved to have received its funding quicker. The Housing Authority’s application for $15 million in rental assistance for those facing eviction was placed on hold because the county wanted documentation to ensure that the evictions were COVID-related.

After a meeting with THA, the city and local housing officials, the county agreed to provide THA with $750,000 in CARES Act funding to hire a third-party firm to administer the rental assistance program and submit applications for assistance to the county.

Commissioners also have approved the remainder of the THA’s $15 million request and are expected to make an initial $3 million allocation for rental assistance on Monday.

“We’re thankful,” Hall said. “It looks like it is moving along just fine.”

Peters noted that the CARES Act moratorium on evictions did not expire until Friday.

“But you can’t really evict for 30 days; that takes you into August,” he said. “So getting the money sooner wouldn’t have really helped a whole lot.”

Any CARES Act funding the county does not distribute by the end of the year has to be returned to the federal government.

Peters said he doesn’t expect there to be much, if any, money left unspent.

“If you had asked me that three weeks ago, I would say we have to return some back,” he said. “But the deeper we get into this thing, the more I see that there is a whole lot of need out there that the funds are needed for.”

 County approved CARES Act funding

Department SummaryApproved Amounts
Social Service $117,813.49
Election Board $917,372.08
TAEMA $2,629,994.72
Bldg Ops $226,182.48
HR $61,036.21
IT $387,827.72
Court Serivce $10,891.52
County Clerks $3,758,655.85
DA $1,620.00
Expo $515,023.84
River Parks $51,617.50
Engineering $50,147.21
Treasurer $135,111.43
David L Moss $136,111.03
City of Bixby $13,633.67
City of Jenks $153,235.31
City of Tulsa $572,992.67
City of Sand Springs $84,183.15
City of Glenpool $12,717.72
City of Owasso $54,144.32
City of Broken Arrow $51,894.05
City of Collinsville $38,714.71
City of Skiatook $18,274.79
Law Library $2,722.36
Alternative Courts $24,830.11
Tulsa Housing Authority $15,014,343.75
County Inspection $18,677.65
Six PR $45,000.00
Health Department $610,151.98
Tulsa Regional Tourism $460,500.00
Juvenile Justice Center $116,459.47
Tulsa Economic Development Corp $30,000,000.00
Keystone Fire District $25,461.36
INCOG $48,688.00
Berryhill Fire District $7,359.40
Tulsa County Assessor $39,580.00
Admin Services $19,110.50
Tulsa Film,Music,Art, Culture $362,000.00
Tulsa County Parks $23,982.53
Tulsa Metro Chamber $950,000.00
Public Defender $28,288.00
BOCC $1,025.00
Total Approved $57,797,375.58

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COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues