With the district a frequent target of criticism from Gov. Kevin Stitt for not offering in-person instruction due to high local rates of COVID-19 infection, representatives from Tulsa Public Schools' administration, faculty and support staff issued a joint statement Thursday calling for educators to be placed higher in the state's vaccine priority structure.
"All across the country, states have prioritized teachers and other school team members for the COVID-19 vaccine. We simply believe Oklahoma should do the same, which is why we continue to advocate for teachers, and our team, to be a higher priority in our state," reads the statement, issued jointly by TPS Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist, Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Shawna Mott-Wright, and American Federation of Teachers Local 6049 President Nancy Leonard.
"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," they said.
"Our students, teachers, parents, and community deserve better. Oklahoma deserves better. Our children are watching and waiting."
Reached by phone Friday morning, Leonard said many of the 2,400 support staff her chapter represents -- including her husband, a mechanic at the district -- are nervous about returning before receiving a full vaccination series.
"I can tell you, a lot of our drivers, a lot of our cafeteria food service employees, and a lot of the [paraprofessionals] are folks that are 55-plus-years-old," Leonard said. "I can understand why they would be afraid to come to work if they're not fully protected."
"We want them back, too. My drivers miss the kids. My custodial people miss seeing them running in the hallway. The cafeteria ladies miss feeding them at the school," Leonard said.
"I've got some friends that have kids in the district, and, yeah, it's been real tough on them. And they fuss at me. And I'm like, guys, please put yourself in their place for two seconds, walk in their shoes for two seconds," Leonard said. "Because you're sitting here fussing at me about having to go to your job, and your job is doing [whatever] to protect you or not protect you -- we're just asking to get the same."
Reached for comment, Stitt spokesperson Charlie Hannema did not address the question of vaccine priority for school staff but provided the following statement: "For over 300 days the governor and parents have been wondering what is motivating Tulsa's superintendent, now the only district in the state refusing to offer in-person learning, and today she has revealed what those motives were: she puts teachers unions first, not students.”
Leonard called that statement "aggravating."
"All we're doing is looking out for the benefit of the people. That's it," she said.
"There's a bigger picture that folks need to look at than political games," Leonard said.
Mott-Wright did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A TPS spokesperson declined to comment on the response from the governor's office.
The governor announced in December that teachers and school staff were being moved up from phase three to phase two, but since then, while the state has moved on to phase two, teachers have been in a sub-group below other sub-groups and have not been had vaccine made widely available to them. Gist this month addressed the governor's "fixation" on TPS, saying, "We are not the only district that has been in distance learning, and there are certainly plenty of things that the governor could do differently if he truly wanted our students back in person. Pointing fingers and saying what we all want to happen is not helping it to happen. It's more magical thinking. Wishful thinking."
Full statement from Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist, Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Shawna Mott-Wright, and American Federation of Teachers Local 6049 President Nancy Leonard:
Tulsa Public Schools, the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, and the American Federation of Teachers have remained consistent in our approach to navigating through this pandemic:
· We have followed the guidance of health professionals;
· We have prioritized the safety of our support professionals, teachers, school leaders, students, and families; and
· We have remained committed to providing the best possible student learning experiences that we can in a way that keeps our community safe and healthy.
While we are grateful and enthusiastic to partner with the Tulsa Health Department to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to our team members (including nurses, health care assistants, and teachers) ages 65 and older -- we need all of our team members in public education to be vaccinated as soon as possible, particularly those who are at higher risk. At minimum this should include our special education teachers and paraprofessionals who work with our students with special needs who are typically not able to wear masks, which places them at greater risk.
All across the country, states have prioritized teachers and other school team members for the COVID-19 vaccine. We simply believe Oklahoma should do the same, which is why we continue to advocate for teachers, and our team, to be a higher priority in our state.
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.
All of our students need and deserve an environment that is safe to learn and grow together in person with their peers and teachers.
All of our teachers need and deserve an environment that is safe to work in person with their colleagues and students.
All of our support professionals need and deserve an environment that is safe to work in person with their colleagues and team.
We continue to urge all Tulsans to wear your masks, wash your hands, and watch your distance to prevent the spread of coronavirus. When we all use these precautions, we can reduce COVID cases and ensure our students can safely return to their classrooms.
Our students, teachers, parents, and community deserve better. Oklahoma deserves better. Our children are watching and waiting.