I don’t think people recognize the gravity of what we’re asking of our school districts if they were to re-open as if everything were normal (though it’s looking like we may have a statewide mask mandate for schools, hopefully, though that is not certain as yet). It is very difficult for schools to find enough substitute teachers in a normal year. Hiring of certified staff and support staff is still incredibly difficult, with a teacher shortage nationally that is arguably still most acute in Oklahoma — we had over 3,000 emergency certified teachers last year because there were zero certified applicants for those positions across the state.
Above all we need to protect our children, teachers, support staff, and administrators. In a recent OEA survey, 31% of teachers said they had vulnerabilities for COVID-19. Further, it’s not as simple as many believe in terms of children’s health; thousands of Oklahoma children have one or more COVID-19 risk factors, as noted by OEA in the segment here labeled “Children at Risk.” However, we should also bear in mind that even if this were not a deadly disease (though we know it is and that we do not yet know its lasting effects for survivors), in many communities there is no one waiting in the wings to step in while teachers are home recovering if they become ill.
This is a circumstance of our own making. We continue to allow our schools to be under-resourced. Case in point, now we have a governor who is taking a full $10 million (over ¼) of the relief funds our public schools desperately need and sending it to private schools. Public schools serve 91% of Oklahoma’s school age children (703,650 public school children, 38,757 private school children, and the rest doing other options like home schooling). With $29.9 million going to public schools (and it looks like a portion of that may be going elsewhere but just to keep it simple, let’s say this whole remaining chunk of the funds were going to public schools) and $10 million to private schools, Governor Stitt has offered up about $42 per public school student vs about $258 per private school student – more than 6 times the money per child for private school students than that offered for each public school child. Nevermind the fact that public funds should serve public needs. This is a page ripped from the DeVos playbook.
When are we going to take better care to elect people who will fulfill the most basic functions of a state government, including adequately funding our schools? When we are going to refuse to accept one of the worst (if not the worst per capita) teacher shortages in the country? Pushing teachers back into the classroom before we can do so safely is not going to help us out.
I hear people express concern about kids falling “behind” if we don’t open “on time”? Until we treat our teachers better, we’re going to continue to have classrooms staffed all year by those who are not yet prepared to teach our children. Yes, I’m aware there was a raise, and yes, I deeply appreciate it. But that was one of several needed steps after a decade of disinvestment in our schools. It was not a cure-all. When are we going to stop electing people who leave us in crisis so long that it begins to feel normal? Our kids and our teachers deserve so much better. This is not normal.
The bottom line for me is this…If we want to show our teachers legitimate appreciation, we’re going to need more than a Starbuck’s card and a pack of construction paper from their back to school wish lists. We’re going to need to elect officials who don’t treat them as expendable at the state and federal levels.
We were already in crisis. It’s important that we remember that and work to address it. How do we do that? For starters, we need to fund smaller class sizes, “luxuries” like A/C systems that work, more support staff and specialists like counselors and reading specialists, funds for meaningful professional development—and yes, we still need higher teacher pay.
I’m not naive enough to think those things are going to happen this year with the state budget being what it is, and I certainly don’t have all the answers for exactly how re-opening should look in this mess. I do know whatever our plan is, we better take care of the teachers we do have.