Schools are set to return to inperson classes in August.
Local school districts, like Weatherford, have or are in the process of adopting policies for that return.
As the Weatherford Daily News reported in the Wednesday, July 15, edition, Weatherford Public Schools will give parents the option of in-person or distance looking back at them in person. This is why it pains us to admit there is still so much to be done before we can return back to our schools safely. We cannot support school starting when it is dangerous.”
Priest said If they do not address these basic needs, they are 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,” Priest said. “However, safety must be our first priority. If it is not, children who will die and educators will die.”
Priest, Jami Cole, Duncan teacher and leader of the Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook group, outlined their suggestions for a safe return to in-person learning. Joining the two were Clark Frailey, co-founder and executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids; Mary Best, president of Oklahoma American Federation of Teachers; Dr. Dwight Sublett, president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics; and Morgan McClellan, a student at Rattan Public Schools.
Sublett said this is a complete disaster, but Oklahoman’s have dealt with disasters before such as tornadoes and floods. He said wearing a mask might be an inconvenience, but it could save lives and slow the spread greatly.
“COVID-19 is a disaster,” Sublett said. “We are all in this together and have gone through tough times before. I encourage Oklahoman’s to wear masks. Some people think it is an infringement on our rights and liberties, but in times like this, you have to make a sacrifice for the greater cause and I believe wearing masks in public will help our cause.”
In addition to requiring masks, the group said the state should meet these standards to ensure a safe environment at school: Provide schools with personal protection equipment (PPE), soap, hand sanitizer and other necessary cleaning supplies, establish protocols on when to shut down a school site or an entire school district and address the sheer number of students in one building at one time.
“We should not have to be in this situation,” Priest said. “We should not 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.”
Priest claims to ensure a safe learning environment, the state must require masks for everyone inside school buildings unless medically inappropriate and provide items such as having PPE, soap, hand sanitizer and have cleaning supplies readily available.
“The state must mandate protocols on when to shut down a school and when to shut down a district,” Priest said. “The state must address the sheer number of students in one building at one time and the state must provide basic supplies such as touchless thermometers.”
McClellan, a high school senior at Rattan said she believes students should wear masks and try to social distance as much as possible.
“Social distancing can be hard in some high schools,” McClellan said. “The hallways at my high school are only 3-feet wide and it is hard to stay 6 feet apart. Masks should be mandatory because they can slow down the spread.”
Teachers and staff start reporting for the 2020-21 school year in the next 2-3 weeks. While schools are making plans for how to open, the number of Oklahomans diagnosed with COVID-19 continues to spike.
“Today, the infection and death rates are even higher,” Priest said. “We are being told to proceed as normal, but this is not normal. 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 Gov. 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.”
Government leaders say they had to shut down because they were not prepared. Now, they think they are more prepared.
Priest emphasized the state needs to adopt clear and strong policies to protect the health and safety of all students and education employees to safely resume classes next month.
“Hard decisions were made in March, and we believe those decisions saved lives,” Priest said. “It is 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. Schools will not magically have extra resources like personal protective equipment, sanitizers, cleaning supplies and substitute teachers. Sick-leave policies will not rewrite themselves to reflect our new normal.”
With school beginning in a month and teachers and faculty soon reporting, Priest said there are so many questions left unanswered.
She asked, “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?”