Oklahoma will spend $10 million from its federal coronavirus funds to buy personal protective equipment for distribution to schools.
That includes enough masks for every student and teacher to have two, as well as face shields, gloves and gowns for school personnel. The equipment will be sent to regional warehouses for distribution with a goal of delivering it by Aug. 14.
Rep. Sherrie Conley (R-Newcastle), a 26-year educator, said students belong back in schools, and not just because in-person instruction is superior.
"Schools provide essential services. They’re safe places where kids can feel loved, develop social and emotional skills and are provided healthy meals that they may not get at home," Conley said.
Gov. Kevin Stitt reportedly did not consult any Democratic lawmakers with teaching experience ahead of Thursday's announcement. Rep. Melissa Provenzano (D-Tulsa) said in a statement the PPE plan answered only one of their seven questions about returning to in-person instruction. Other concerns include ensuring school buildings and classrooms meet federal air ventilation standards, creating a sick leave policy for teachers, and getting internet access and a device to every student.
Stitt said online learning is no guarantee students and teachers won’t catch COVID-19, noting youth sports and other activities have been going on for weeks now under his reopening plan.
"If schools do not open in person, it is not feasible to think that students and teachers will stay home and will not come into contact with anyone else," Stitt said.
State Secretary of Human Services Justin Brown said when kids aren’t in school, more of them may go hungry, witness domestic violence, or experience abuse or neglect, and teachers won’t see signs to report it.
"The tradeoff is beginning to present in some of our community partners across the state. Although early evidence is anecdotal, the community is seeing children and families present with potentially unprecedented levels of trauma," Brown said.
The state also plans to offer teachers monthly coronavirus testing starting Aug. 21.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister was not at Thursday's announcement. Stitt said he had invited her. The State Department of Education did not respond to a request for confirmation.
In a statement, Hofmeister thanked Stitt for working to supply schools with personal protective equipment.
"It is critical that every effort be made for our kids and teachers to return to school, and the evidence is clear that face masks — along with face shields, gloves and gowns — are crucial for that to happen," Hofmeister said.
Some school districts in the state have already committed to delaying students’ return to classrooms until later in the fall, while others are still weighing their options. The State Board of Education left all coronavirus decisions up to local boards when it rejected safety requirements proposed by the State Department of Education.