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Union School Board Rejects Superintendent, Health Department Recommendations; Will Start In-Person

Union Public Schools
A still image from a video of the Union Public Schools board of education meeting on Monday, Aug. 10th.

This story was updated at 12:34 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11th, to note that board president Heather McAdams' hypothetical math is incorrect.

In a 3-2 vote, the Union Public Schools board of education voted against the recommendations of the Tulsa Health Department and their own superintendent that the school year begin virtually due to the severity of Tulsa County's COVID-19 outbreak.

Superintendent Kirt Hartzler and Associate Superintendent Charlie Bushyhead both made their case for the recommendation not to allow a return to in-person learning just yet.

"From a personal standpoint, who am I to question the Tulsa Health Department and the doctors who actually study this?" Bushyhead said. "When we look at the recommendations that we're hearing from them, we feel the responsible decision for us is to go to distance learning and not in-person starting on Aug. 24th."

Hartzler said the district had already had to quarantine a number of sites because of infections in custodial staff, before the school year has even begun.

"With over 2,000 employees returning full-time, and certainly now with 5,200 virtual students our number would be around 11,000 students, I think you can deduce like I did that it's not going to take us long before I would be forced to probably have to say we do not have adequate staff in order to be able to safely and efficiently run our school," Hartzler said.

Deena Churchill of the Union Classroom Teachers Association said a survey she conducted revealed that over 69% of responding teachers favored a virtual start to the year.

"This was precipitated by an overwhelming volume of emails we received, all of which were quite strongly against returning to in-person learning and requesting distance learning instead," Churchill said. "Most of these communications expressed a great amount of fear at the thought of teaching a classroom of 25 to 30 students and the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19. It was heartbreaking to witness the level of anxiety represented."

Board president Heather McAdams spoke emotionally about the risks to students, teachers, staff and faculty due to a return to in-person learning, even as she was at times heckled by members of the crowd.

"Let's say kids only die at a .01% rate," McAdams posited. "We've got 12,000 of them. That's still 12 kids. That's how many kids died in Columbine. Nobody in this nation is going to say that was not a tragedy, but we have people sitting here saying that it's OK, it's OK that we lose 10 students this year because the risk is so low that it's going to be my kid." (.01% of 12,000 actually works out to 1.2.)

"You all want to call teachers essential workers, and I do too, because we can not run this world without teachers, we can not," McAdams said.

"But tell me what other essential workers are having to go to work every day -- no, let me finish -- how many times have you had to spend seven hours in a room with 25 other people who might not keep a mask on?" McAdams said, as she was interrupted by at least one yelling crowd member.

McAdams and board member Stacey Roemerman voted to accept the superintendent's recommendations.

Still, three of the five board members -- Ken Kinnear, Jeff Bennett, and Lisa Ford -- voted not to accept the recommendations to begin the year with distance learning.

"Just going on data... and the overwhelming number of parents who want to retain the choice that we offered them and fully understand the risks, I would like to see us start school, so I will disapprove," board member Kinnear said to cheers.

Bennett, who drew scrutiny recently for an email to concerned parents in which he doubted experts and used an ethnically insensitive name for the novel coronavirus also favored by President Donald Trump, also voted against the superintendent's recommendation.

"I must vote to prevent the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional and behavioral health; economic wellbeing; and academic achievements of children in both the short and long-term, [which] are well known and significant," Bennett said.

"I vote to be back in the classroom, so I vote no," Bennett said.

Union parents have the option to choose virtual learning, though so far the majority of families have not opted to do so. Classes are scheduled to begin August 24th.

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