State education officials on Thursday adopted suggestions, rather than mandates, for safety protocols for all public schools in Oklahoma ahead of the start of the new school year.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister had proposed minimum requirements for school conduct — their mode of instructional delivery, health protocols, mask requirements, and restrictions on outside visitors, public events and extracurricular activities — based on the number of cases per capita in a county where the district is located.
But Hofmeister was overridden by a majority of the state Board of Education in a split 4-3 vote to amend the proposal to make the safety protocols only “strong recommendations,” ultimately leaving decisions about whether to hold in-person or distance learning or to require masks to local school boards.
Hofmeister, who voted in the minority, summed up the effect of the vote by declaring: “There is no safety requirement of schools.”
And after the meeting, she issued a press release calling the vote “very disappointing and one that likely will stoke more concerns for teachers, parents and families with a new school year only weeks away.”
But Bill Flanagan, a board member from Claremore, disputed her characterization during the meeting, saying that he and the other three members who preferred “strong recommendations” to statewide mandates care as much about school safety as anyone else.
“I think the color system is fine for information, but the final decision really needs to be left to the school district. They have the most current information about the status and the safety of those particular kids that are entrusted with their safety,” said Flanagan. “I really think the countywide stuff is so broad — if you have a nursing home or a meatpacking plant in your district and you have an outbreak in that, your numbers will go as high as the sky, but your school is OK.”
Board member Estella Hernandez, of Oklahoma City, also opposed the adoption of statewide mandates, saying it violated assurances about protecting local control she made during the process of her appointment to the state Board of Education by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
“We’re talking about top-down, and that’s not what Oklahoma and what this nation is all about,” she said. “It’s about trusting our local boards to do what they’re intended to do.”
The state’s newly recommended safety protocols are aligned with the color-coded COVID-19 alert system adopted about a month ago by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which is updated weekly based on rates of community spread being documented in each of the state’s 77 counties.
The protocols call for schools to be more restrictive as coronavirus cases became more prevalent in a county.
Hofmeister said the Oklahoma State Department of Education had spent countless hours working with state health officials to create the proposal. She also noted the majority of Oklahoma’s public schools are located in counties with current rates of community transmission of COVID-19 that would be recommended to hold in-person instruction if school were in session now.
She said both parents and teachers, thousands of whom are already eligible for retirement, have been looking to the state for an assurance of minimum safety requirements amid the global pandemic.
“This is a time for leadership. This is a time for the citizens of Oklahoma that are under compulsory attendance (laws) have assurance that protocols are provided,” Hofmeister said.
Carlisha Williams Bradley, a board member from Tulsa, was in the minority in wanting to make the minimum safety protocols mandatory, likening such an action to the state board’s adoption of requirements for every public school’s safety drills and student immunizations.
She pointed out that the state board voted to shut down public schools statewide in March and said now, “we are in the midst of something that is far worse than we ever predicted. I don’t even feel like this is enough.”
Bradley and Kurt Bollenbach, a board member from Kingfisher, attempted to get the board to reconsider making everything a mandate except the decision about whether to hold in-person classes, but that effort failed.
Board member Jennifer Monies of Oklahoma City voted to make all of the safety protocols only suggestions, saying that putting in place new requirements so soon before the start of the new academic year could throw the plans that many local school boards have already adopted “into chaos.”
Monies also said local school boards are going to be “much more nimble” to respond quickly to local pandemic-related concerns.
On Thursday afternoon, the state’s largest teachers union said the state board failed Oklahoma’s students.
“We appreciate State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister proposing a plan to make school safer for students and staff. Sadly, four state board members couldn’t find the courage to protect our communities,” said OEA President Alicia Priest. “This is not a board standing up for local control. It is a governor-appointed board hiding behind those words to escape their responsibilities to the children of Oklahoma.
“If our elected leaders do not take their obligations to protect them seriously, our kids are the ones who will suffer — along with our colleagues, our families, and our fellow Oklahomans.”
The leader of Professional Oklahoma Educators, another association of teachers, applauded the state board’s vote.
“With more than 500 school districts across Oklahoma, POE understands that every community looks different right now and so does the corresponding level of risk,” said Ginger Tinney, executive director of the group. “A local decision is the most appropriate method to determine the best interest of everyone in the school district and the community.”
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In 85 years of operation, Muncie Power Products hasn’t constructed any facility from the ground up.
“We’ve bought them. We’ve refurbished them,” said Ray Chambers, president and CEO of the Tulsa manufacturer. “We’ve never built.”
The company on Thursday celebrated the start of construction on a new 250,000-square-foot plant, the first such development at the Peoria-Mohawk Business Park. Phase 1 is scheduled for completion in the spring.
“When Muncie Power Products does something, we do it first-class and then take it up a notch,” Chambers said. “This is going to be great for our community. It’s going to be great for our company.”
A relocation of the 7217 E. Pine St. facility that employs 250, the new plant at 1555 E. Mohawk Blvd. will enlarge capacity for new manufacturing machinery, assembly equipment and warehousing. It will be the Indiana-based Muncie’s primary manufacturing facility for the making and assembling of power take-offs and other hydraulic components for work trucks.
A company official couldn’t provide a cost for the facility or say how many new jobs it could create.
Site development of the 120-acre Peoria-Mohawk Business Park, located at Peoria Avenue and 36th Street North, was backed by a $10 million incentive via Vision Tulsa, a portion of which is supporting the Muncie site. Partners on the project include the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the city of Tulsa, Tulsa Community WorkAdvance and Tulsa Tech.
“There’s been an acknowledgment, I think for several years in our city, that north Tulsa took a back seat to the rest of the city when it came to economic opportunity and economic development,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said. “There simply wasn’t enough investment in this part of our city for decades.
“That’s one of the key reasons that when we put the Vision Tulsa program forward, we gave the citizens of Tulsa the opportunity to show that they wanted to do something to make the kind of investment that would create greater economic opportunity in this part of our city through work at this site. And it was approved overwhelmingly.”
Of Muncie’s project, Bynum added: “The opportunities that you’re going to create, the lives that you are going to change here at this site, are remarkable. It will be a multigenerational transformation for our city.”
Vanessa Hall-Harper, the Tulsa city councilor who represents the area, said the project will provide much needed livable-wage positions.
“It’s not every day that great economic opportunities make their way to District 1,” she said. “And it’s certainly not every day that quality jobs come to District 1.”
According to prepandemic statistics, more than 35% of north Tulsans lived in poverty, compared with 17% of those living in the rest of the city, Hall-Harper said.
“It is time that we get back to shopping and working within the same communities that we live in,” she said. “I look forward to the day when I can see someone walk to work or bike to work right here on this site.”
American Airlines lost $2.1 billion in the second quarter of this year as passengers avoided air travel as a result of COVID-19. The company reported the loss Thursday, and it comes on the heels of an announcement that American could furlough 25,000 employees across the country. The company is expected to furlough 1,003 Tulsa employees.
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A local patient infected with COVID-19 and in need of a hospital bed was unable to find one in the Tulsa metro all day Wednesday, according to the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.
Dr. George Monks posted on social media Thursday morning that the patient was in an emergency room at 8:30 a.m. but was unable to be placed in a hospital bed until after 5:30 p.m., when “the one and only bed in the entire Tulsa metro area became available.”
“We are at the end of the runway,” Monks wrote.
The “runway” is a reference to a comment from Gov. Kevin Stitt, who said earlier this month that Oklahoma has “plenty of runway” to monitor and adjust its response as COVID-19 surges. The Tulsa World reported Sunday that medical professionals and state data disagree with Stitt’s characterization.
Donelle Harder, spokeswoman for the state on COVID-19 issues, said the state wasn’t able to confirm details in Monks’ post with Tulsa hospitals.
Interim Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said Tulsa-area hospitals report that they have the resources to respond to current demands.
“We have not identified a situation in which a hospital is operating at maximum capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Frye said in a statement. “Tulsa-area hospitals are communicating that resources are available to increase staffing and beds should there be a need as it relates to the novel virus.”
Frye said the Oklahoma State Department of Health is optimistic that hospitalizations statewide in the past 72 hours have remained stable.
COVID-19 hospitalizations were at 628, 607 and 630 patients in the past three state data reports. The high so far has been 638 hospitalizations on July 14.
Monks, in a Thursday morning follow-up post on Twitter, said he received his information from a colleague and that he hopes it reflects a one-time occurrence.
He said the situation illustrates the larger issue that bed capacity isn’t equal to staffing, with Oklahoma already experiencing a physician and nurse shortage when COVID arrived.
Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, was asked about Monks’ tweet in a news conference Thursday.
Dart said he couldn’t speak about it specifically but said data showed hospitals at about 80% capacity Wednesday, with coronavirus patients staying an average of about 7.5 days. He also referenced a national shortage in nurses that reaches Tulsa, too.
“The process of bringing patients in and discharging patients is a lengthy process,” Dart said. “I’ll be honest: We’re really not as concerned about bed capacity — which is always going to be an issue in hospitals. I mean, they want to stay full. It’s important that each hospital has the staffing to man each bed so that patients can be taken care of.”
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said he speaks with hospital leaders each week about capacity. He said it varies by hospital, with some that are experiencing greater surges than others.
He said the only reason Tulsa isn’t forced into a shutdown, as happened earlier in the pandemic, is that the state built COVID-19 overflow capacity. The mayor specifically mentioned 124 overflow rooms at Oklahoma State University Medical Center in Tulsa.
“But that facility, to Dr. Dart’s point earlier, is not currently staffed to deal with 124 COVID patients,” Bynum said. “In this current environment, one of the issues that the doctors raised in the council discussion last week is where do you find trained personnel — doctors and nurses — who aren’t already in demand and aren’t already being utilized in a different hospital, a different facility?”
During a Tuesday news conference Stitt said Frye has been working with hospitals to modify the state’s surge plan and increase hospital overflow capacity.
“Should Oklahoma experience a worst-case scenario, we always have the levers to pull to limit nonemergency surgeries across different regions of our state to make more beds and staffing available for COVID,” the governor said at the time.
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office has declined to prosecute the motorist who drove through a crowd of protesters on Interstate 244 in May.
But District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler on Thursday encouraged the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to work toward identifying people who were in the path of the vehicle for possible prosecution.
“Although the claim may be that this was a peaceful protest, there was nothing peaceful about the targeting and attack upon this family,” Kunzweiler said in a memo the Tulsa World obtained Thursday afternoon. “Crimes were committed upon this family and the individuals responsible should be held accountable.”
He said his office would instead like the Highway Patrol to identify individuals seen in photos or on video doing what he described as “using weapons and throwing projectiles and damaging the property of this family,” whom he did not identify.
A 32-year-old protester, Ryan Knight, was paralyzed when he fell from a highway overpass during the melee and broke his neck and back, and he remains in extensive rehabilitation.
Attorney Jonathan Nation, who represents another person who was injured, told the Tulsa World on Thursday evening that Kunzweiler’s stance is “essentially blaming the protesters and essentially blaming the victims for their own injuries.”
The May 31 protest in downtown Tulsa was part of demonstrations nationwide in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police six days earlier.
On the day of the incident, demonstrators had been marching near John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park downtown.
A group of protesters at one point walked onto I-244 and an access ramp, stopping traffic on the highway. A Tulsa World photographer captured an image of the driver, who was in a pickup hauling what was described as an “empty gooseneck horse trailer,” displaying a gun on his dashboard before pulling forward through the crowd.
The encounter, Kunzweiler wrote, was in the westbound lanes of Interstate 244 between Elgin and Detroit avenues. His memo says authorities identified three people who were injured, including Knight and a woman who sustained bone fractures.
Sarah Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said Wednesday that the agency provided the results of its investigation to federal and state prosecutors on Monday. Though Stewart did not say what DPS recommended, Kunzweiler said “no affidavit requesting charges was submitted with this report, nor was there a request for charges.”
Nation said his client is looking at initiating a civil case. “I’m really concerned the DA has decided not to take a neutral stance and is trying to pin the blame on those who were out peacefully protesting,” he said.
“There was also a car that had been let through just prior to the truck-trailer without any incident, so to say these were violent protesters mischaracterizes what the footage is.”
Similarly, the Rev. Eric Gill of Metropolitan Baptist Church, who helped organize the May 31 protest, said Kunzweiler’s announcement was “unfortunate.” However, he said, he was not surprised by the outcome.
“When an assault takes place against individuals participating in a demonstration that called for law enforcement to be held accountable for morally compromising actions and the individual isn’t held accountable, this is the reason why there’s doubt and a divide between law enforcement and the community,” Gill said.
“It’s not surprising because oppressive systems have a way of protecting and perpetuating (themselves.)”
In declining to file charges, Kunzweiler wrote that the family in the pickup — including two children — reported fearing for their safety during the encounter and sustained property damage, including to the windshield.
The father reported that “an older black male motioned for him to drive forward and follow the initial lead automobile which was being allowed passage,” Kunzweiler wrote. “This statement is corroborated by a camera video which shows an older black male securing passage for the initial lead automobile. The black male can be overheard telling protestors to allow the automobile and the truck passage. However, soon after the truck begins to move forward protesters descend upon it and begin striking it.”
Kunzweiler also wrote: “The mother described herself as being in fear for her life and the lives of her family members as their truck was repeatedly struck by protesters with their hands and objects which appeared to be bricks, metal bars, skateboards, bottles and other items. The father described his fear for his own life and the lives of his family as their family truck was surrounded by protestors who began to beat upon the truck with their hands and various weapons, to include projectiles thrown at the vehicle. At one point the front windshield was broken and glass fragments flew upon him.”
Kunzweiler said that “one child described the sound as if they were in a hail storm. The children’s mother echoed her children’s statements and described them as so scared they got on the floorboard of the truck, screaming and crying.”
Nation told the World previously that he thought the driver should face a reckless endangerment charge and said Thursday that his actions, malicious or not, at least warrant a traffic citation.
Kunzweiler said Thursday that his office had jurisdiction in deciding the case because the collision site is not within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s boundaries.
It remains unclear whether the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tulsa also has jurisdiction to pursue a case following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that much of Oklahoma remains legally Indian Territory for purposes of enforcing federal criminal law. A spokesman for the office declined to comment on the subject Thursday evening.
Curtis Killman contributed to this story.
Gallery: Protests in Tulsa in May, June