Alicia Priest
FILE – In this April 12, 2018 file photo, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. Priest, the head of Oklahoma’s largest teachers’ union is praising Gov. Kevin Stitt for moving teachers and support staff to phase two of the vaccine distribution plan. But Priest also warned the governor Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, that forcing schools to return to in-person learning in January could jeopardize the health and safety of public school workers. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki File)

By SEAN MURPHY The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The head of Oklahoma’s largest teachers union praised Gov. Kevin Stitt on Monday for moving school personnel to phase two of the vaccine distribution plan, but she warned the governor that forcing schools to return to in-person learning next month could jeopardize the safety of public school workers.

During a news conference, Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest also released details of an informal survey of more than half its members that show 63% believe schools are not safe for in-person instruction. The governor, who has pushed an aggressive reopening plan, has said his goal is to have all public schools offer in-person classes after the Christmas break.

“We have heard from so many teachers who are excited about returning to their classrooms in January or are grateful to teach in a district that offers in-person instruction because they know how many students are struggling with distance learning,” said Stitt’s spokesman, Charlie Hannema, who noted that the majority of Oklahoma teachers are not members of the union and didn’t participate in the survey.

Priest, a Spanish teacher from Yukon, described Stitt’s plan is an “arbitrary date” and suggested it could pit parents and educators against one another.

“As someone with a daughter who is attending school, I identify with the frustration of parents,” Priest said. “But we must remember that the enemy is the virus. It’s not educators and it’s not parents.”

Priest also praised the State Board of Education for its recent decision to suspend for one year the state’s A-F grading system for public schools, a system the OEA opposed.

Among the other findings of the union’s survey was that 12% of the 3,147 members surveyed reported that they had contracted COVID-19, which would be about double the state average, and that about 90% said they don’t believe schools are able to effectively accomplish social distancing. The survey also found that more than 97% of respondents reported having some kind of mask mandate in their district, although those who responded represented fewer than half of the state’s more than 500 school districts.

While studies have shown that children are less likely than adults to get infected with the virus, the risk of spreading the virus at schools depends largely on how much community transmission is taking place in the district.

Also on Monday, CVS Health announced that it plans to begin administering vaccines to more than 27,000 patients at 176 skilled nursing and assisted living facilities across Oklahoma. Those workers are in the first phase of the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

More than one-third of the COVID-19 deaths in Oklahoma, or about 685 people, have been residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities, according to the most recent data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Oklahoma health officials reported 2,596 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Monday and six additional deaths, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 263,434 and the statewide death toll to 2,218.

While the seven-day rolling average of both positivity rate and new cases in Oklahoma has increased over the last two weeks, the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths decreased slightly, from 22.86 on Dec. 6 to 21.14 on Dec. 20, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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Oklahoma Teachers Union Head Warns About Return to Classes

AP, Education, News |