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Stitt announces $10 million CARES Act commitment to personal protective equipment for schools; teachers to be tested monthly

Correction: Gov. Kevin Stitt's spokesman said the governor misread a written statistic when commenting at Thursday's press conference about how many children in the 5 to 17 age range have been hospitalized with COVID-19. The number is fewer than 30, the spokesman said. This story has been corrected.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday said he is committing $10 million for personal protection equipment in schools and plans to test teachers for COVID-19 on a monthly basis.

The $10 million comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed by President Donald Trump in March.

The funds will provide 1.7 million reusable masks — two per teacher and two per student, Stitt said.

It will also pay for 42,000 clear face shields, 1.2 million pairs of disposable gloves and 1.2 million disposable gowns, he said.

The personal protective equipment will be distributed through the Department of Emergency Management to regional warehouses, where school personnel can pick them up, he said.

Stitt said a goal is to get the items distributed to schools by Aug. 14.

The governor said he will sign an executive order telling the Oklahoma State Department of Health to work with the Oklahoma Department of Education to create a plan by Aug. 21 for monthly COVID-19 testing of teachers.

“Our kids cannot miss another year of school,” Stitt said.

In Oklahoma, only 1% of COVID-19 cases have been in people ages 5 to 17, Stitt said.

“We have had less than 30 hospitalizations in that age group with one tragic, untimely death of a child,” Stitt said.

He encouraged options such as distance learning for students who have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk for COVID-19.

“But keeping schools closed for all students has many harmful consequences,” Stitt said.

A lack of in-person instruction prevents students from accessing services and widens the achievement gaps that existed before COVID-19 across income levels and races, he said.

Stitt’s announcement came during a Capitol press conference, where he was joined by Philip Abode, executive director of Crossover Preparatory Academy in Tulsa, and others.

The school is a private, Christian, all-male college preparatory school.

“Some of our students come to us without a lot of positive male role models in their lives, and the relationships they get to build with our mainly male staff won’t be as strong in a virtual setting,” Abode said.

He said the students, many of whom are not on track to graduate or are not career- or college-ready, will learn faster in person. “With our small classes and the proper PPE, we are really looking forward to providing students with a great education this year,” Abode said.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister was invited to be at the press conference but did not attend.

Hofmeister was among those who voted in the minority for mandatory safety protocols in public schools at last week’s state school board meeting. The board voted 4-3 to adopt suggestions, rather than mandates, for safety protocols for all public schools in Oklahoma ahead of the start of the new school year.

“It’s 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,” she said in a statement released after the press conference. “COVID-19 has created difficult decisions that require schools to offer families a number of instructional delivery options that best meet their needs.”

Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a statement: “We’re grateful that the governor will provide schools with some personal protective equipment, something OEA recommended weeks ago. Districts have been scrambling to make these purchases for months, but we’ll take it.

“However, districts, educators, and students have had an even more difficult time finding cleaning supplies — something the governor said he hasn’t even considered. That’s alarming.

“This (PPE) is what CARES Act money should be spent on — not vouchers. This is a good first step, but the clock is ticking,” she said.

Stitt had earlier said he was dedicating $10 million from the state’s CARES Act to provide grants for private school students whose families have lost a job or suffered economic hardship because of COVID-19.

Stitt, who said he has fully recovered from COVID-19 after announcing July 15 that he had tested positive, did not wear a mask during Thursday’s briefing.

Asked by a reporter why he was not wearing a mask, he said, “Because I’ve already had COVID.”


Gallery: 20 quotes from Oklahoma educators on going back to school during a pandemic

20 quotes from Oklahoma educators on going back to school during a pandemic

John Lewis mourned as 'founding father' of better America

ATLANTA — Hailed as a “founding father” of a fairer, better United States, John Lewis was eulogized Thursday by three former presidents and others who urged Americans to continue the work of the civil rights icon in fighting injustice during a moment of racial reckoning.

The longtime member of Congress even issued his own call to action — in an essay written in his final days that he asked be published in The New York Times on the day of his funeral. In it, he challenged the next generation to lay “down the heavy burdens of hate at last.”

After nearly a week of observances that took Lewis’ body from his birthplace in Alabama to the nation’s capital to his final resting place in Atlanta, mourners in face masks to guard against the coronavirus spread out across pews Thursday at the city’s landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church, once pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Former President Barack Obama called Lewis “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance” during a fiery eulogy that was both deeply personal and political. The nation’s first Black president connected Lewis’ legacy to the ongoing fight against those who are “doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting.” His words came as the country has been roiled by weeks of protests demanding a reckoning with institutionalized racism — and hours after President Donald Trump suggested delaying the November election, something he doesn’t have the authority to do.

“He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” Obama said. “And some day when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union, whether it’s years from now or decades or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”

Former President George W. Bush said Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80, preached the Gospel and lived its ideals, “insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope.”

Former President Jimmy Carter sent written condolences, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled how the sky was filled with ribbons of color in Washington earlier this week while Lewis’ body was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol.

“There was this double rainbow over the casket,” she said. “He was telling us, ‘I’m home in heaven. I’m home in heaven.’ We always knew he worked on the side of angels, and now he is with them.”

Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, led by King. He was best known for leading protesters in the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he was beaten by Alabama state troopers.

During the service, the arc of Lewis’ activism was once again tied to King, whose sermons Lewis discovered while scanning the radio dial as a 15-year-old boy growing up in then-segregated Alabama.

King continued to inspire Lewis’ civil rights work for the next 65 years as he fought segregation during marches, “Freedom Rides” across the South, and later during his long tenure in the U.S. Congress.

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said of his run-ins with the law. The phrase was repeated several times during the funeral.

“We will continue to get into good trouble as long as you grant us the breath to do so,” one of King’s daughters, the Rev. Bernice King, said as she led the congregation in prayer. She later paused and laid her hand atop Lewis’ flag-draped casket at the front of the church.

Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, called Lewis “a true American patriot who risked his life for the hope and promise of democracy.”

Outside the church, with temperatures in the upper 80s, hundreds gathered to watch the service on a large screen; some sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Pharrell Williams’ joyous tune “Happy” played as a closing song while a military honor guard loaded Lewis’ flag-draped coffin into a hearse; many congregation members clapped along.

The service ended days of remembrance for Lewis, who spent more than three decades in Congress representing most of his adopted home of Atlanta. In addition to the U.S. Capitol, his body lay in the Georgia and Alabama Capitol buildings, and events also were held in the Alabama cities of Troy, Lewis’ hometown, and Selma.

To the many tributes Thursday, Lewis managed to add his own words. His essay in The New York Times recalled the teachings of King:

“He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice,” Lewis wrote. “He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.”

“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way,” he wrote. “Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

Former President Bill Clinton referenced the essay during his remarks: “It is so fitting on the day of his service, he leaves us his marching orders: Keep moving.”

College football's fluid situation forces OU's marquee nonconference game off the schedule; Big 12 Media Day abruptly canceled

Plenty of unknowns surrounding a 2020 college football season remain as the sport enters August trying to counter a global pandemic.

The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University enter the month with uncertainty as marquee nonconference opponents have slashed them from their schedules. The University of Tulsa’s conference has yet to finalize a plan.

OU did learn that its marquee nonleague game against visiting Tennessee, scheduled for Sept. 12, will not be played. The Southeastern Conference announced Thursday that it will play only 10 conference games this season and abandon all out-of-league contests, which includes OU-Tennessee.

The SEC joins the Big Ten and Pac-12 in playing only conference opponents. The ACC schools and Notre Dame will play 10 conference games and one nonconference game of its choosing, the league announced Wednesday.

The Big 12 hasn’t officially announced its plan but showed uncertainty by canceling a virtual media day scheduled for Monday. The event was originally slated for July 20-21 but was pushed back to Aug. 3. Whether it will be rescheduled is unknown.

“There continues to be a lot more questions than answers about what the football season will look like,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement. “A media day is intended to talk football and the prospects for the season. Part of that discussion is who you will be playing and when. With the on-going consideration of scheduling models by our Board of Directors, this is the best course of action at this time.”

The Athletic has reported Big 12 presidents will meet Monday, with four or five scheduling models being discussed.

Oklahoma is scheduled to host Missouri State on Aug. 29. OSU’s Sept. 3 opening game against visiting Oregon State was canceled when the Pac-12 chose to play conference games exclusively. Tulsa remains scheduled to host Toledo on Sept. 5.

OU officially begins fall camp Friday with a football roster free of the COVID-19 virus.

The Sooners are practicing one week earlier than anticipated after the NCAA approved a waiver to shift the season-opening game forward one week. Missouri State, an FCS school in Springfield, will begin workouts Saturday.

On Thursday, Oklahoma announced that 100 players and 38 staff members were tested on Wednesday with no positive results. It is the third consecutive week the football program has not had a positive test.

The Sooners’ men’s and women’s basketball programs also went through testing Tuesday. There were 48 tests among student-athletes and staff members with zero positives.

Joe Castiglione, OU’s director of athletics, was asked after Tuesday’s Board of Regents meeting whether the low numbers can continue as students return to campus this semester.

“How would you know?” Castiglione said. “There’s really no way to say for sure. Once again, we feel like the protocols that we’ve put in place — we’ve been very transparent intentionally about all of it — is doing the very best we can to give ourselves the chance to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. But it’s still a risk mitigation, not a risk elimination. We understand we’re only as good as our next test.”

Oklahoma has released weekly testing results since players returned to campus on July 1 — which was weeks after some other schools allowed their student-athletes to return for voluntary workouts.

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A look at OU football assistant salaries

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Watch Now: 'We cannot get lax': Officials say COVID-19 measures are 'starting to make a difference,' but caution that hospitalizations remain historically high

A week to the day after Tulsa hit an all-time high for hospitalizations amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, local officials sounded a hopeful note that a recent return to vigilance is sparking a turnaround.

“Since (July 23) we are actually from a hospitalization standpoint back to where we were about two weeks ago. We’re on a downward trajectory,” Mayor G.T. Bynum said Thursday at the weekly city-county COVID-19 briefing.

But while that’s “good news,” he added, he cautioned that “we’re still at historically high levels of hospitalizations.”

“The things we’re doing locally are starting to make a difference,” the mayor said. “But we cannot get lax. All we are showing is that we have a two-week run of doing the right thing. We have weeks to go, months to go, before we get back to the levels we want to be, where we were back in May.”

To what degree this last week’s downward turn is related to the city’s new mask mandate, Bynum said he couldn’t say.

“Even leading into (the mandate) there was an elevated awareness among Tulsans that our medical community was really concerned about this,” he said.

But he said he’s thankful to the community for following the mandate.

“It’s been really encouraging to see folks all over town with masks on,” the mayor said. “I continue to hear from business owners and everyday citizens who just feel safer going around the city, knowing that Tulsans are taking this seriously.”

Bynum noted that the city website has special posters available for use by business owners. The posters indicate that masks are required by ordinance.

“It takes the burden off the business owner for being the bad guy and puts it on city. That’s what we’re here for,” the mayor said.

Bynum was joined at the briefing by Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart and Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith, who recently recovered from COVID-19.

Asked about schools reopening, Dart said the health department cannot tell districts what to do, but “the safer option is virtual learning.”

“Frankly, there’s no right or wrong answer for parents, but the one that you and your family feel comfortable with is the choice that we recommend that you follow,” he said.

In an overview of the county’s most recent numbers, Dart said the 18-35 age group continues to have the most cases, and represented 39% of all reported cases for the week of July 19-25.

“In fact, now more than half of all cases in Tulsa County are people aged 35 and younger,” he said.

The age group 5-17 makes up a larger portion of cases compared to last week, while for age 65 and older, cases are declining.

He said over 30% of all hospitalizations are in age groups under 50.

Dart said THD now has two accessible testing locations in Tulsa: North Regional Health and Wellness Center, 5636 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and in a former medical office at 101st Street and South Memorial Drive.

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

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