Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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As parents across Oklahoma call for local schools to reopen and provide in-person instruction, one of the most vocal opponents they face is the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

The OEA’s continued opposition to reopening schools that serve children comes even as nursing home officials are beginning to ease visitation restrictions for elderly citizens who are at far greater risk of COVID-19 complications than students or most school staff.

In a recent interview with Tulsa’s CBS affiliate KOTV, OEA vice president Katherine Bishop reiterated the union’s opposition to school reopening, citing safety concerns.

The union’s social media pages continue to tout news stories of teachers who have chosen to retire or leave the profession due to COVID-19 concerns. The OEA even retweeted references to the recent death of a Mustang school employee who died from COVID-19.

However, that case does not appear to be a result of in-person instruction. The Oklahoman reported that the Mustang school district stated officials “do not believe that this case is a result of a link to the school environment.”

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, 7.5 percent of Oklahoma school districts began this school year without any option for in-person instruction and instead required all students to receive a virtual education online.

That has led to strong pushback from parents in those districts, and officials in several districts have since relented and announced they will reopen, including Owasso, Yukon, and Jenks.

Many parents have noted that K-12 schools are one of the few places not reopened and that there have been no notable outbreaks in other venues that serve children, including other schools.

During public comments at the Stillwater school board’s Sept. 9 meeting, parent Taurean DuHart noted, “Kids are in daycares. Kids are in school camps. Kids are babysitters. They’re doing activities. For goodness sakes, Stillwater Public Schools had a football game. Kids are not staying home, so not having school doesn’t prevent kids from being around COVID.”

DuHart noted research in European countries that reopened schools have found little or no community spread of COVID-19 tied to in-person instruction.

“We are the only entity not operating in Stillwater,” DuHart said.

Other parents have raised similar points, noting that children often face a greater chance of exposure to COVID-19 as the result of school closures.

In comments on an online petition calling for in-person instruction at Deer Creek schools, Anthony Andrews wrote, “Having the kids go to daycare 3 days a week is just increasing the exposure pool. They should be in class with their same risk pool every day. On top of that, the mental health of the students is becoming far more concerning than the covid risk.”

Parents in Edmond have also launched a petition calling for the resumption of in-person instruction for five days a week in that district. One signer, Sarah Bushman, posted, “On ‘virtual days,’ a large number of the kids in our district go to day camps, daycares, group facilities and activities, and NOT minimizing their exposure. Students would be more protected inside their classrooms with the same people every day, than out in the community.”

On that same petition, Heather Parkins McBride wrote, “The private schools are attending 5 days a week and they are having great success. No spike in cases.”

Another comment posted on the Edmond petition, by Mackenzie Lopez, noted that daycares are open full time while traditional schools are not.

“I think it’s dumb that kids aren’t in school full time!!” Lopez wrote. “My 3 year old goes full time and older kids should be able to too!! End the nonsense!”

A statewide survey of active likely Oklahoma voters conducted from August 10 to 13 showed 63 percent of voters support using tax dollars for private-school tuition when “a local school district decides not to hold classes in person.” The poll was commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and conducted by Cor Strategies.

For months, the OEA has been among the most vocal opponents of school reopening in Oklahoma. On July 23, the OEA declared on Twitter, “We want to work. We also want to stay alive.” Similarly, in a statement issued in late July, OEA President Alicia Priest declared, “Many teachers and staff face an impossible choice: Put themselves and their families at risk or leave the work they love.”

However, demographics suggest most teachers are not at high risk of dying from COVID-19, even if infection appears in a school setting.

A 2018 state report showed the average age of educators in Oklahoma schools was 45 years. The median age of Oklahoma teachers was also 45 years, meaning half of teachers were younger.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH), nearly 80 percent of Oklahomans who have tested positive for COVID-19 and subsequently died have been age 65 and older. People age 49 and younger represent just 4.45 percent of state deaths among the COVID-positive. The OSDH also reports that “roughly 80% of cases report mild symptoms.”

Even as the OEA opposes school reopening, state officials have begun easing restrictions on nursing home facilities that serve the one group shown to be most at risk from severe COVID-19 complications. While 3.6 percent of total COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma have been residents in long-term care facilities, that group has represented 42 percent of deaths among the COVID-positive.

The OSDH released revised visitation policies for long-term care facilities on Thursday after advocates for the elderly said the forced isolation generated by visitation bans was creating medical harm as serious or worse than COVID-19.

The OSDH’s new guidance declares, “While public health mitigation efforts remain critically important in long-term care settings where residents may be more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19; quality of life and dignity of residents must be considered.”

The OSDH requires nursing homes to

  • establish guidelines for compassionate care visits and essential caregiver visits that include visits for psychosocial needs and assisting with daily care needs;
  • allow virtual visitation at least twice weekly or more as may be necessary to ensure resident wellbeing; and
  • ensure state long-term care ombudsmen are allowed into facilities to investigate issues related to quality of care.

The change drew praise from advocates for the elderly.

“This announcement of improved visitation, care, and supervision is welcome news for the many Oklahomans in our long-term care facilities and those who play vital roles in caring for their loved ones,” said Rep. Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City. “These positive changes will help reverse some of the negative effects suffered from isolation forced by quarantine during this time of pandemic.”

“This really helps those family members who are closely involved with the care of their loved ones as well as meeting the emotional and social needs of residents across our state,” said AARP volunteer state president JoeAnn Vermillion. “Combined with the return of onsite visitation by the state long-term care ombudsmen, family members now have more opportunities to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their loved ones.”

Research shows social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, rivaling even deaths caused by smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Social isolation is associated with about a 50-percent increased risk of dementia, a 29-percent increased risk of heart disease, and a 32-percent increased risk of stroke. Higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide also are linked to loneliness, as is an increased risk of hospitalization or emergency room visits.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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