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Adam Kupetsky: Stitt's 'personal responsibility' emphasis undercuts public schools during the pandemic

Adam Kupetsky: Stitt's 'personal responsibility' emphasis undercuts public schools during the pandemic


Tulsa Public Schools elementary students will return to classes next month, and my thoughts go out to teachers, who have a difficult job whether teaching at school or virtually. If anyone suggests that teaching is easy or the last refuge of someone who cannot find meaningful work, I challenge them to give it a try.

Teachers are challenged during this pandemic by the state’s failure to support them over the years, creating an undercurrent that hinders their ability to teach classes effectively and safely. This undercurrent reflects implementation of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s “personal responsibility” credo for battling the coronavirus and governing the state.

Stitt’s philosophy became well-known during the mandatory face-coverings debate. When the big city mayors and the vice president recommended that Stitt impose a statewide mask mandate, Stitt demurred, favoring personal responsibility. The city acted on their own, but were undercut by surrounding communities that refused to mandate masks.

Still, the number of cases in big cities declined. Those outside the cities increased and have fed a broad rally in COVID-19 cases statewide as citizens received Stitt’s message that going maskless has no consequences.

In a form of “moral hazard” (ironically, often used by conservatives to criticize helping the poor), suburban and rural Oklahomans enjoyed their freedom from masks and distancing while their fellow citizens headed to hospitals. As some predicted in May, the virus flourished in Oklahoma, but TPS students did not. Neither they nor teachers could return to school safely, resulting in a less-than-optimal virtual learning system that has caused parents to demand a return to the physical classroom, ready or not.

Stitt’s personal responsibility mantra benefits only those who selfishly seek convenience and comfort but puts those who are required to return to school in a no-win situation. Teachers must now risk sickness and death as they find themselves with hundreds of students, colleagues and support staff and the danger that represents to their health. It’s especially hazardous for teachers with pre-existing conditions that make them particularly susceptible to serious consequences of COVID-19.

It also undermines the effectiveness of teachers, who really want to help students. The most effective teachers will want to approach students to review their work or be a mentor. Teachers worried about their health must also perform, and their schools are graded by the state on their effectiveness.

In normal times, teachers struggle to reach kids whose parents don’t wake them in the morning, require them to go attend school or help with homework even with underfunded classrooms and large class sizes, but now teachers will struggle even more to make these essential efforts. Teachers will spend much of their time corralling, disciplining and separating kids rather than teaching them.

Stitt’s personal responsibility exhortation rings especially hollow for teachers stuck in large classes through no fault of their own. A serious impediment to learning before the pandemic, large class sizes exacerbate the COVID-19 risk to teachers and students. Nor can teachers exercise personal responsibility to make sure their colleagues and students are tested periodically and thereby avoid the disease notwithstanding the risks and focus on teaching their huge classes.

In fact, the governor and current Legislature have continuously failed to fund public schools sufficiently to improve the educational environment and the governor has declined to request additional federal funds for the pandemic. Shame on them.

Teachers are unfortunately in a situation similar to meat-packing workers in the Panhandle, who can discuss how far exercising personal responsibility got them. At least those who are still alive can. The workers went back to work but their company failed to make sure work stations were sufficiently separated, surfaces were clean, break areas appropriately set up for distancing and coworkers tested for the virus.

Teachers have a profound responsibility for educating and protecting students. Not all kids have the acuity, upbringing or parents to propel them to success, and teachers must reach them all. The state could have mandated masks earlier, provided adequate funding for rapid testing, funded smaller class sizes and taken other measures to improve Oklahoma’s public education system and make it safer and more conducive to learning during the epidemic. But they didn’t.

By implementing Stitt’s bankrupt governing philosophy, Oklahoma has allowed the pandemic to rage while underfunding public schools and handicapping teachers and students. That only sets the stage for failure. Now once again, it’s up to Tulsans to keep teachers safe and educate our students.

Adam Kupetsky lives in Tulsa. He is a former member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board.

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