Under a plan announced Thursday by Gov. Kevin Stitt, all Oklahoma teachers and school staff can be vaccinated for COVID-19 by spring break.
The announcement eliminates the last major objection raised by school officials concerned about full reopening amidst the pandemic, and eliminates justification for not providing full-time, in-person instruction during the last quarter of the current school year.
“For weeks, we’ve been vaccinating teachers and school employees over the age of 65,” Stitt said. “In the next few days, we’ll be making the vaccine available to school teachers and staff of all ages.”
State officials said all teachers can get the vaccine starting Feb. 22, and they estimated that the roughly 89,000 K-12 teachers and staff working in Oklahoma schools can all be vaccinated in a handful of weeks, providing all adults in the school system protection from the pandemic during the final quarter of the school year.
Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Lance Frye said it is “important for us to prioritize our hard-working teachers and staff. Our goal is to ensure that any teacher who wants to receive COVID-19 vaccine has the opportunity to do so by spring break.”
Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, a longtime classroom teacher, thanked Stitt for being “relentless in his pursuit to open schools safely, and his commitment to putting students first and keeping teachers safe.”
“Teachers and other school employees in our state are now set to get a vaccine long before the end of the school year,” Walters said.
While many school districts across Oklahoma have provided full-time, in-person instruction as an option, several major districts—including Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Stillwater—have conducted almost the entire school year online with no in-person option, and several large suburban districts have provided only part-time in-person instruction, creating massive social and economic disruption for parents whose children attend schools in those districts.
Officials stressed the needs of parents when discussing the vaccine plan, saying parents need to be provided the option of in-person instruction.
“I’ve spoken to countless parents across Oklahoma who are worried about their kids—worried about their mental health, worried about the setback of one year out of school and what that could mean for their future,” Walters said. “And I’m a parent. I also share those same concerns. Distance learning works for some, but not all. Too many parents have been robbed of their unique ability to make the best decision for their kids. Today, we’re moving one step closer to giving parents back that decision. We’re also one step closer to getting kids back in classrooms.”
“Each day that goes by, we learn more and more about how important it is to get our kids safely back in the classroom,” Stitt said.
The vaccine announcement comes as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are plummeting in Oklahoma.
“Our cases are down 59 percent from their peak last month, and hospitalizations are down 56 percent from their peak,” Stitt said.
So far, Stitt said around 441,000 Oklahomans have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while 167,000 have received both doses of the vaccine. More Oklahomans have now been vaccinated for COVID-19 than the total number of citizens who have tested positive for the virus since last spring, according to the latest Oklahoma State Department of Health figures.
Stitt noted that Oklahoma currently ranks sixth-best in the nation in the percentage of people provided the vaccine.
The most vocal opposition to full reopening of public schools has come from teachers’ unions, including the Oklahoma Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. OEA officials previously announced their continued opposition to school reopening even after Stitt first announced last December that teachers would be prioritized in vaccine distribution.
The OEA has also announced its opposition to state testing of students this year, which would provide parents objective measurement of students’ learning loss and allow comparisons of academic outcomes at schools that fully reopened versus those that did not.
In a statement issued in response to Stitt’s plan to have all teachers vaccinated by spring break, OEA President Alicia Priest said the union was “grateful.”
“Every teacher vaccinated represents a classroom full of students who can begin to go back to the business of learning unafraid,” Priest said. “Vaccinating their teachers, coaches, bus drivers, cooks, and others is an important step toward normalcy.”
However, the union did not expressly endorse full reopening of all Oklahoma schools in Priest’s statement.