The Oklahoma Education Association and other local organizations are urging state leaders to require the use of face masks in schools to protect students and educators during the coming school year.
OEA President Alicia Priest hosted a virtual news conference Thursday to warn against reopening school districts in Oklahoma without implementing the necessary safety procedures.
“Oklahoma educators are eager to get back to the classroom and see their students’ smiling faces looking back at them in person,” Priest said. “We got into this profession to build relationships with our kids and colleagues and to help make our communities better. The love we receive in our buildings every day is the most rewarding feeling for an educator.
“This is why it pains us to admit that there is still so much to be done before we can return back to our schools safely. We can’t support school starting when it’s dangerous.”
School districts across the state currently are drafting plans for how to safely reopen and are relying on local health officials as well as state leaders for guidance.
While Tulsa recently approved a face mask ordinance, it doesn’t apply to people younger than 18. Oklahoma and most of its cities have not implemented any mask requirements.
Priest emphasized the need for Oklahoma to adopt clear, strong policies to protect the health and safety of students and school employees to resume classes safely in August. She noted that the COVID-19 epidemic has only worsened since schools shut down and transitioned to distance learning in March.
In addition to requiring face masks in schools, Priest said the state must provide schools with personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies such as soap and hand sanitizer. She also called for establishing protocols on when to shut down a school site or an entire district and a plan to address the number of students gathered in buildings at the same time.
Priest said she believes that children and educators will die if those needs aren’t met and safety isn’t prioritized.
“OEA provides our members the option to have a free will drawn up by our legal team,” she said. “We are getting dozens of requests every day, and all of them have the same question: Can this be completed before I have to go back to work?
“We all miss our students, and we all wish school could go back to normal. But there are some of our colleagues who are literally planning for their deaths. This is unacceptable. This is inhumane.”
The Oklahoma City branch of the American Federation of Teachers surveyed its district’s employees about their thoughts on wearing masks during the 2020-21 school year. About 89% responded that staff and visitors should be required to wear them inside school buildings, while 81% said students should wear masks, said Mary Best, president of AFT Oklahoma.
Safety requirements must be in place before schools open, Best said, and it’s become imperative for educators to adapt to a new normal.
“Teachers and staff are anxious and are not only worried about their health and safety but the health and safety of their own children and loved ones,” she said.
The Rev. Clark Frailey, co-founder and executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, said he’s heard from many educators who are afraid they won’t have the resources to return to school safety next month.
They want to know how this situation will be different from previous years in which public education funding has been shortchanged and neglected. Frailey said he doesn’t know what to tell those educators.
“We can make up lost ground academically,” he said. “We can make up prom and basketball games, but we can’t bring back dead people. I just don’t understand how we can approach this any differently by taking the utmost concern for the staff and for the kiddos who are going to go back into these schools.”
Jami Cole, a Duncan Public Schools teacher and leader of the newly renamed Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook group, said many teachers and their loved ones have underlying health issues that put them at higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The best way to ensure their safety, Cole said, is for everyone to wear masks when they leave their homes.
“This discussion is not about partisan politics or denying individual freedoms,” she said. “It’s quite simply about the health and safety of our children and the education professionals who work with them every day.”
Gallery: Where has Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt been during the past month?