Earlier this month, the satirical website, The Babylon Bee, posted an article titled, “Teachers Union Opposes Vaccine As It Might Force Teachers To Teach Again.”
The real world substantially duplicated parody in Oklahoma on Thursday as the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, declared its continued opposition to school reopening after Gov. Kevin Stitt announced that teachers will be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations.
“Opening schools is just a soundbite until our leaders do whatever it takes to limit community spread,” OEA President Alicia Priest said a statement. “What our students need are lasting solutions.”
She did not specify what steps the union considers to be more “lasting” than a vaccine and numerous other measures taken to address COVID-19 in public schools.
At a press conference, Stitt announced that teachers and school staff will be given priority for COVID-19 vaccinations as part of the effort to make full-time, in-person instruction an option for all Oklahoma students.
“I’ve heard from so many parents, students and teachers about how hard this year has been,” Stitt said. “Students are struggling academically, and also emotionally from being away from their classmates.”
He noted that many children have had the option of in-person instruction in Oklahoma and said that should be the norm statewide “as soon as possible.”
Health and education officials joined Stitt in support of the plan.
“Our teachers are on the front lines of this pandemic, and moving them up in priority is another tool we can give them to help get everyone back in school and keep them safe,” said Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Lance Frye.
He said teachers should be receiving vaccinations by early January.
“Moving teachers up in priority for this vaccine shows that we know teachers are critical as we continue to fight this pandemic,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, a longtime classroom teacher. “We know many of our students are falling behind academically. We must do everything we can for every Oklahoma student to ensure that they have the best education possible while minimizing the risk as best as we can.”
“We’ve heard stories about students who aren’t just falling behind academically, but they’re having emotional issues from not being in school,” said Rep. Rhonda Baker, a Yukon Republican who is a former teacher and chair of the House Common Education Committee. “They’re going hungry without the consistency of school meals. And there’s countless child abuse-and-neglect cases that are being missed because those children are not in the classroom so that their teachers can report those issues. We know that without consistent school, it is hard for students to learn and for parents to work. It is so important that we do everything we can to get students and teachers back in school and do it safely. So giving our teachers the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible will allow us to safely get our kids back to school and the teachers to be back where they desperately want to be.”
In their press release responding to Stitt’s plan, OEA officials stated, “Everyone wants to return to normal, but those with the power to make a difference in mitigating the damage of this pandemic in Oklahoma must act. We must make sacrifices and we must listen to the scientific experts at places like the CDC or OU Health.”
During his press conference, Stitt played video of a Nov. 19 statement made by Robert Redfield, the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in which Redfield said, “Today, there is extensive data that we have, we’ve gathered over the last two to three months, that confirm that K-12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning, and they can do it safely and they can do it responsibly. The infections that we’ve identified in schools, when they’ve been evaluated, were not acquired in schools. They were actually acquired in the community and in the household.”
In the same release that OEA officials called on Stitt to heed CDC officials, they dismissed Redfield’s statement, saying Redfield’s comments were “only a partial truth and only for communities not experiencing rapid rates of infection.”
The OEA release also stated that the union has given state officials “a chance to control community spread, take the virus seriously, and make it so we could all return to normal school safely,” but that state officials “failed.”
In addition to prioritizing teachers for COVID-19 vaccines, Stitt noted the state has provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to schools along with grants to cover the costs of other COVID-19 needs.
In its release, the OEA did not highlight any specific COVID-19 need that, if addressed, would lead the union to support resumption of in-person instruction.
The union’s stance did receive backing from one prominent lawmaker.
Rep. Emily Virgin, a Norman lawmaker who leads the House Democratic caucus, tweeted, “It’s true there has been lower spread in school than outside school. However, when the virus is spreading uncontrolled in communities around the state, it makes complete sense that teachers and administrators would make the decision to keep school buildings closed.”
She said policies like a “statewide mask order” would allow for school reopening.
Although Oklahoma does not have a statewide mask mandate, Stitt recently noted that data from Carnegie Mellon University showed that 87 percent of Oklahomans nonetheless regularly wear masks in indoor settings.
The most recent Weekly Epidemiology and Surveillance Report issued by the state also showed that COVID-19 spread, on a per-capita basis, remains lower in areas without mandates than those communities that have imposed mandates. As of Dec. 8, there were 62.2 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in areas without mask mandates, compared to 64.3 cases in areas that imposed mask mandates prior to October and 71.5 cases in areas that imposed a mask mandate in November.