The State of Oklahoma will provide personal protective equipment to school districts across the state in August and will set a monthly testing plan in place for teachers, Gov. Kevin Stitt said Thursday.
Stitt, giving his first press conference since returning to public duties after quarantining for two weeks because of his COVID-19 diagnosis, said Oklahoma is committing $10 million from its CARES Act funding to supply Oklahoma schools with the PPE they need for in-person instruction. The state was allocated $1.26 billion in federal funding to address problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and Stitt and other state leaders have said they want the funding allocated as quickly as possible.
Stitt said Thursday the allocation of education funding for specific PPE items is based on a request from the State Department of Education and includes masks, face shields and disposable gloves and gowns.
“We provided exactly what the State Department of Education said they needed,” Stitt said.
Specifically, the funding will pay for 1.7 million reusable face masks, or enough for two per teacher and two per student. In addition, the state is providing 42,000 clear face shields, 1.2 million pairs of disposal gloves and 1.2 million disposable gowns. Stitt said the state will buy the PPE and allocate it to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, which will distribute the supplies to regional warehouses where school districts may collect them.
Stitt said specific details will be provided in coming days, but the intent is to get the PPE distributed to school districts by Aug. 14.
Stitt said he also signed an executive order Thursday directing the Oklahoma State Department of Health and State Department of Education to create a plan to test teachers for COVID-19 on a monthly basis. That plan is to be in place by Aug. 21, he said.
“As your governor, I’m committed to providing schools with the resources they need to open for in-person learning,” he said, emphasizing he believes the state’s schools need to return to in-person education.
Stitt was accompanied by officials who helped him stress the importance of returning Oklahoma students to in-person classrooms as quickly and safely as possible.
Justin Brown, secretary of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, said the effects of the government shutdown to control COVID-19 has had an impact on the state’s most vulnerable populations, including children. Brown said based on other factors, incidents of child abuse and neglect were expected to increase, but actual reports are down.
“Teachers play a critical role in recognizing abuse,” he said, adding it is “clear kids are not being seen by teachers.”
Brown cited statistics: in April 2019, teachers reported 767 incidents of abuse or neglect. The Department of Human Services received 57 reports in April 2020, he said, adding “hundreds of kids remain at home in unsafe conditions with nobody watching.”
Stitt, noting state leaders are making decisions for children based on data in Oklahoma, said the American Academy of Pediatrics said COVID-19 appears to behave differently in young people than do other respiratory diseases. He said data indicates children are less likely to be symptomatic, have less severe cases and may be less likely to spread the virus.
In Oklahoma, 1 percent of the positive COVID-19 cases are in children between the ages of 5-17, with less than 300 hospitalizations in that age group and one death (a 13-year-old Fort Sill child who died earlier this month). Stitt said by contrast, two school-age children died of the flu this year and 245 children were hospitalized.
Stitt said keeping schools closed for all school children may cause harmful consequences. He said 60 percent of Oklahoma students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and while programs implemented over the summer helped such students, they are not a good long-term strategy. He said there are additional concerns about mental health and social services not being provided, and widening achievement gaps across income levels and races.
Oklahoma Rep. Sherri Conley, a former teacher and administrator, said there is decided value in having children in classrooms with teachers, explaining schools are safe places where children feel loved, develop social and emotional skills, and receive healthy meals. She cited fears about what educators call the “summer slide,” the knowledge that students lose over the summer without school. She said by seventh grade, students lose an average of 39 percent of their knowledge in reading and math, a loss she fears will become more pronounced in an entire virtual year.
“Distance learning is not an equitable solution,” she said.