We recently saw our state’s school board vote 4-3 to make “recommendations” about how schools could reopen rather than enacting consistent statewide policies. By choosing to limit its role, the board abdicated responsibility for important decisions that impact the safety of our teachers, students, administrators and communities.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister expressed her disappointment with the final vote. I was disappointed, too.
For me, the discussion is also personal. My wife is an Oklahoma public school teacher, and, lately, our kitchen table discussions surround her safety and well-being while doing something she loves — teaching.
Regarding COVID-19 and conversations about how to reopen schools, I find it troubling that local school districts are being thrust into this position. From my perspective, the state board’s decision requires local educators and administrators essentially to become public health policy experts, diverting focus from their important work — designing curriculum and supporting students.
At Hilti, where I work, we believe that we will be dealing with COVID-19 for some time. While we are hopeful that we will see effective vaccines and treatments soon, we are making definitive policy decisions today based on public health expert recommendations. We believe that is our responsibility so that team members can do their jobs safely without distractions.
Our starting point is an infrastructure of information collection and decision-making. A six-person crisis management team meets three times a week to survey the landscape of what is happening across North America. We monitor public policy development and, most important, new learnings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our executive team wraps each week by making decisions on next steps, including changes to existing policies where appropriate.
This works because our company culture is dedicated to open dialog between our leadership and team members. While we monitor developments and make decisions centrally, we proactively take input from teams locally. Inclusivity and teamwork are foundational to our culture. At the same time, there is no substitute for leadership in times of crisis.
Early on, we discussed whether we should make general recommendations rather than centralized policies, but the feedback from our management team was clear — they needed direction. Not so much to drive compliance, but to give them space to do what they do best — taking care of our customers and each other. This also gave us peace of mind that all team members were being protected equally.
Some of our protocols include reporting requirements, distancing and mandating masks when you are not alone at your work station. The mask mandate also applies for customers when they come to our stores —and that was before mask mandates became prevalent in some areas.
Enacting these procedures in every location is no small task. Hilti North America operates from coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada. But the hard work was worth it. Our business is recovering, and because everyone follows the same consistent protocols, we can provide better protection for all team members while at work.
This brings me back to our situation in Oklahoma. How to reopen schools. We don’t need more state recommendations. We can all look to the CDC and local professionals like Tulsa Health Department’s Bruce Dart for expert advice. What we need are clear and consistent guidelines from our state’s educational system. While our schools may not be a business, I view the state Board of Education as the equivalent of our executive team.
I was expecting a stronger stand and mandatory wellness policies to send a clear signal that we will have a safe in-person instructional environment for all of Oklahoma’s teachers and students. I would also like to see the resources necessary to ensure that schools can provide the needed personal protective equipment to anyone in a classroom.
During a global pandemic, it’s reasonable to expect strong leadership that supports our teachers, our students, our administrators and our communities. We need to stand up for them in a meaningful way.
Karl Neumaier is chief operating officer for HILTI North America and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by Community Advisory Board members appear in this space most weeks.