Citing an informal survey of a small share of its membership, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) continues to oppose school reopening as well as public measurement of student learning that would let parents know how severe a child’s learning loss has been as the result of school shutdowns.
The union’s opposition to school reopening comes despite distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in which teachers are being prioritized.
“Educators who have a feel for the community and a feel for what’s going on in our schools right now really are uncertain about what’s going to happen in the future, even knowing we have the vaccines that are coming out,” OEA president Alicia Priest said in an online press conference.
Priest described it as “dangerous” to currently hold in-person school in all but three Oklahoma counties, based on a single medical official’s opinion, and appeared to suggest that schools should not reopen until COVID-19 is largely eradicated, even if teachers are vaccinated.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has already said teachers will be given priority for vaccinations to facilitate a return to in-person instruction as an option for all Oklahoma students.
Priest previously responded to that announcement by saying, “Opening schools is just a soundbite until our leaders do whatever it takes to limit community spread. What our students need are lasting solutions.”
As of Dec. 21, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported that there were 36,544 active COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma, or about one case for every 108 residents, based on Census data.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ has long said its members “strongly” advocate that all policy considerations for school “should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
On Nov. 19, Robert Redfield, the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), noted the CDC has never endorsed school closings in response to COVID-19 and said that “extensive data” now “confirm that K-12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning, and they can do it safely and they can do it responsibly.” He also said infections identified in schools “were not acquired in schools. They were actually acquired in the community and in the household.”
The experience of Oklahoma schools that have reopened for full-time, in-person instruction has borne out Redfield’s observations with local school officials reporting that most infections have been acquired by staff or students outside of the school setting with little or no in-school transmission.
Nonetheless, the OEA survey showed less than 17 percent of respondents believed Oklahoma schools are “safe for in-person instruction right now.” That pessimism was reported even though nearly 98 percent of respondents said their school district has some form of mandatory mask policy in place.
Priest said teachers’ union members have little or no confidence that local school boards and administrators, state lawmakers, or the governor will provide what OEA members believe is needed to be safe at work.
Only 17 percent of OEA survey takers were “very confident” in their local school administrator, and just under 14 percent were “very confident” in their school board. That contrasted with 37 percent and 34 percent, respectively, who voiced strong confidence in their local school leaders in a June survey of OEA members.
Notably, a solid majority of OEA respondents—57 percent—said they have not experienced financial stress because of the pandemic, and 61 percent did not have school-age children who are being affected by school closures and forced distance learning.
In contrast, parents across Oklahoma have said school closures, including models that involve in-person learning for part of the week along with forced virtual learning at home, are creating severe economic hardship, particularly for low-income households.
Parents have also voiced concern about learning loss that has accrued since the closure of all schools last spring and continued closures into the fall. Experts have predicted some student groups will lose a full year of learning in certain subject areas.
State tests are currently scheduled to be administered next spring. Members of the State Board of Education recently stressed that those tests will provide parents and school officials with concrete data that will help them address shortcomings, and that the test results will inform parents of the impact of school closures.
Some parent advocates have also called for state testing to continue, saying parents deserve that information and predicting it will also show that schools that did reopen produced better results.
However, 94 percent of respondents to the OEA survey want state testing suspended this year.
The anti-testing stance was taken even though the survey also showed that 98 percent of OEA respondents admitted “keeping students on track with their education” was a problem in their district with 77 percent saying it is a “major problem.”
Similarly, 97 percent of respondents said the “mental health and well-being of students” is a problem in their district with 66 percent saying it is a “major problem.”
Priest said the OEA represents roughly 30,000 individuals, but many of those union members are not teachers and an OEA filing with the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year reported just 18,725 active OEA members.
There are more than 43,000 classroom teachers in Oklahoma, along with numerous other support staff and administrators hired by schools. Those that participated in the OEA survey represented just a sliver of total teachers, support staff, and administrators in Oklahoma with a little over 3,100 responding to the informal OEA survey.