I never thought I would see the day when my kids were excited to go to school.
Then again, 2020 was a year unlike any we have ever lived through.
As parents, like many across the state, guiding our family through a pandemic was not something Sarah and I had prepared for. As governor, leading Oklahomans through such an unprecedented crisis was something I expected even less.
But I’ve only ever known one way to tackle a challenge: head on.
So, my team went to work.
From the beginning, reopening schools safely was a top priority since the data supported the fact that children were less at risk from contracting and developing severe cases of COVID.
I know the importance of reopening schools as a parent, but also as a leader of the state of Oklahoma, whose future depends on the next generation.
I also know that thousands of children rely on schools for more than just education. Young Oklahomans rely on their teachers to keep them safe, mentally and physically. They rely on schools for nutritious meals and a safe place to play and make friends.
Reopening schools as quickly and as safely as possible was essential.
That’s why we committed $10 million in CARES Act funding to supply Oklahoma schools with the personal protective equipment they need to offer in-person instruction: over 1 million reusable masks, 42,000 clear face shields, 1.2 million pairs of disposable gloves and 1.2 million disposable gowns. No school in the state has ever been unable to get the personal protective equipment they need.
School districts stepped up and took their own precautions, too.
Parents stepped up to keep their kids home when they were sick and re-taught handwashing.
It was an all-hands-on-deck effort.
But as time went on, prolonged school closures left too many kids falling behind and parents began to get frustrated with their inability to make decisions for their child.
Masks mandates were present in many communities and nearly every district, but some school leaders insisted on trying to control the state’s pandemic response.
I keep hearing from parents in Tulsa who are understandably frustrated at what appear to be moving goalposts for their district compared to neighboring suburban districts as well as Oklahoma City.
Cases have plummeted nearly 70% from their peak and hospitalizations are down 60%, but no word on if that meets the Tulsa standards for safely reopening schools. If not now, when?
Teachers over 65 are being vaccinated, and my team moved teachers and school staff up in priority, but despite being a national leader in vaccine rollout, we were told we weren’t doing enough quickly enough.
The tens of millions of federal dollars sent to Tulsa Public Schools apparently haven’t been enough, either.
Despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evidence showing kids are safe in school, reopening schools became a political tug-of-war between parents versus teacher unions and those who are beholden to them.
Parents continue to wonder: What must happen before they can have the option to go back to the classroom?
Starting on Monday, teachers and school staff will be eligible to receive the COVID vaccine.
Yet there are still schools that continue to keep their doors locked. Likewise, single parents who can’t go to work because their child can’t go to school continue to call my office and ask me to keep fighting for them.
As long as those doors are locked, as long as students are being left behind, I will continue to keep my promise to put students first and stand up for Oklahomans.
Kevin Stitt, a Tulsan, is governor of Oklahoma.
Featured video: The 2021 Tulsa World legislative agenda