Gov. Kevin Stitt announced on Thursday pre-K through 12th grade teachers and support staff are now in phase two of the state’s COVID vaccination plan.
They were previously in phase three of four. The move is aimed at a specific goal.
"Parents and students, I hear you. I am fighting for you. Let me be very clear: I want every Oklahoma school child to have an in-person option in January, period," Stitt said.
There are roughly 82,000 teachers and support staff, and no group already in phase two is being bumped. Officials believe vaccine supplies will increase enough to start vaccinating all phase two groups next month, especially as the Moderna vaccine nears emergency use authorization.
Individuals in phase two of the state's vaccination plan could receive doses as soon as next month.
State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters said he and fellow teachers he’s spoken to want to get back to their classrooms.
"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," Walters said.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the move shows teachers are valued.
"We need our teachers to be as safe as possible, and we know this is an important step in providing a layer of protection sooner than later knowing that we want to have our children back in school, if possible," Hofmeister said.
Stitt has criticized Tulsa Public Schools specifically in past news conferences. The district started the year in distance learning before temporarily bringing students back in person. TPS then reverted to distance learning and pushed back return dates for older kids as infections rose locally. Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist has pushed for teachers to be a higher priority in the state's vaccination plan and thanked Stitt for acknowledging teachers' vital role.
"No one wants our students back to school in person more than our teachers, our team, our board, our students, and our parents here in Tulsa," Gist said in a statement.
Stitt also encouraged Oklahomans to keep doing their part to get kids back in school, which is wearing masks and taking other steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. though he raised the possibility of additional action if districts don’t meet his stated goal.
"The state board potentially could pass some kind of rule that I think could supersede some of the different school districts and some of their decisions. That’s things that the legal department can look at, but we have got to get our kids back in school," Stitt said. "It’s been since March. COVID’s still going to be here in January, it’s still going to be here in February. We can do it safely."
Hofmeister said there would have to be conditions in place before she would even entertain that idea.
"Districts are making those decisions at their local board level, and I don’t know any school leader that isn’t eager to be able to safely be back in class with a full staff and all the resources our students need. And they’re all working hard to do that," Hofmeister said.