BY ALICIA PRIEST
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.
We shut down schools March 25. That day our state had 164 new positive cases. Wednesday, we set a new record with 1,075, and Kevin Stitt became the first governor in the country to test positive. We knew the pandemic was dangerous then, and we know the pandemic is dangerous now.
We took extraordinary measures in extraordinary times to move schools to distance learning. Teachers, students, parents, and caregivers all adapted to a learning environment completely different than anything they had ever prepared for and, yet, they made it work.
Today, the infection and death rates are even higher. We are being told to proceed as normal. This is not normal.
Hard decisions were made in March, and we believe those decisions saved lives. It’s time to make hard decisions again.
If Oklahomans want school to start, Oklahoma’s leaders need to make those hard decisions now. We cannot ignore this pandemic. We cannot turn a blind eye.
Sick leave policies will not rewrite themselves to reflect our new normal.
Schools will not magically have extra resources like personal protective equipment, sanitizers, cleaning supplies, and substitute teachers.
What happens when a teacher tests positive? Will they be forced to use sick days? Who notifies parents? Who needs to get tested? Who ensures they are tested? Who pays for those tests?
How does a classroom packed with 35 children try to socially distance? How can we protect our teachers, support professionals, and children who are at risk of severe complications from this terrifying disease?
Our leadership has failed to take active measures and we are staring those consequences in the face.
We shouldn’t have to be in this situation. We shouldn’t have to beg our leaders to care about the lives of our children and colleagues. But if they abdicate their responsibility, then we will not hesitate to defend the safety of our schools.
Schools can’t even afford full-time nurses, let alone epidemiologists. This is why we rely on our state experts.
To ensure a safe learning environment, the state must require masks for everyone inside school buildings unless medically inappropriate.
The state must have PPE, soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies readily available. The state must mandate protocols on when to shut down a school and when to shut down a district. The state must address the sheer number of students in one building at one time. The state must provide basic supplies such as touchless thermometers.
Children will die. Educators will die.
This is unacceptable. This is inhumane.
If we don’t address these basic needs, we’re not ready to go back to school. We are willing to teach and learn in safe environments, and just like this spring, we are ready to do what it takes to teach our kids.
But safety must be our first priority. If it’s not …
OEA provides our members the option to have a free will drawn up by our legal team. 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.
To those who say only people who are vulnerable are at risk, a large percentage of our students and staff members have underlying conditions. Do they not deserve to learn and work in an environment
without being scared for their lives?
Public education in Oklahoma is for every student. No matter their zip code. No matter their race. No matter their medical issues.
There is no acceptable number of deaths. One is too many. Even avoiding death should not be considered a “win.” Children will be hospitalized. Adults will be hospitalized. This is a novel virus. We do not know the long-term effects. Especially on children who may deal with said effects for the rest of their lives.
We must protect our public schools as if they house our own children. Because they do.
We will come back. We will be in classrooms. We will laugh, learn, and love together in person again. But only when it’s safe. Because we never stopped standing up for the best interests of our students.
– Alicia Priest is president of the Oklahoma Education Association. These remarks were delivered at a July 16 virtual news conference focused on how Oklahoma public schools can reopen safely.