OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced an executive order Tuesday to address the ongoing teacher shortage across the state.
Stitt's order authorizes state agencies to allow their employees to substitute teach in school classrooms. Oklahoma has about 32,000 state employees.
“I've said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay open. The state has a responsibility to do what we can to help make that happen, which is why I have signed this executive order to help schools suffering from staffing shortages,” said Stitt. “I appreciate schools and teachers that are doing everything they can to provide in-person learning for their students, as well as the business community for stepping up.”
As of Monday, Jan. 18, Oklahoma is averaging 10,642 new COVID-19 cases per day, forcing many Oklahoma schools to switch to distance learning due to staff shortages. Green Country schools like Broken Arrow, Muskogee, and Jenks are just some of the local districts impacted by the latest surge in omicron cases.
“It is vital Oklahoma schools stay open for our students and our teachers need support to make that happen,” said Sec. of Education Ryan Walters. “We heard schools are struggling with staffing, so I want to thank Governor Stitt and Chad Warmington for stepping up with an innovative solution and partnership to help our schools support their students and families during this time. As the Secretary of Education and a former teacher, I will do everything I can to keep Oklahoma schools open and will continue to work with business leaders, school leaders, our faith community and state and legislative leaders to find solutions that put students first.”
In addition to Tuesday's order, the State Chamber is urging businesses to help as much as they can too to keep students in classrooms. The order is effective for 120 days.
Oklahoma Education Association President Katherine Bishop released the following statement following Tuesday's announcement:
"The teacher pipeline and sub shortages were issues before the pandemic, and COVID has exacerbated these problems. While state employees and businesses may be able to help in the short term, we need to continue searching for long-term solutions."
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister also responded to the governor's announcement. Hofmeister plans to run against Stitt in the 2022 gubernatorial race.
“We all agree it is best for schools to be open, and I appreciate that the governor has finally recognized this crisis. But we need caring, equipped teachers in classrooms and for the focus to be on learning. This gesture is a cup of water on a raging fire.
The immediate problem is that we are in the middle of a tremendous surge, impacting more than schools. Oklahomans are seeing the ramifications of COVID in their workplaces, churches and families.
With the stroke of a pen, the governor could untie the hands of schools to mitigate spread and allow hospitals to increase capacity. The governor could immediately deploy the national guard to assist with school transportation and food services using millions of COVID relief dollars already in hand.
As the State Superintendent, I ask the governor to take meaningful action now."
2 News Oklahoma reached out to local school districts for their reactions to the state's plan:
Tulsa Public Schools
“Staffing capacity is a key factor for keeping students in classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. While we are grateful that Oklahoma is recognizing the critical need for substitutes across the state, we are also mindful that Oklahoma has quite a long way to go to meaningfully invest in our public education system. Our state has faced teacher, staff, and substitute teacher shortages long before the pandemic, and we are facing them even more significantly now due to the pandemic.
Time and time again, we’ve seen what Tulsans can do when we come together to support our educators, and substitute teaching is a great opportunity for any Tulsan to make a meaningful difference for our children and families. We also need for Tulsans to continue to wear their masks, wash their hands often, practice safe distancing, and get their vaccine to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep our students safely learning in-person.“
Bixby Public Schools
I agree with Governor Stitt's premise that the best place for children to learn is in a physical classroom with a caring, knowledgeable, and professionally-trained educator. However, his claim that filling Oklahoma classrooms with untrained individuals from other state agencies is preferable to any form of distance learning reveals the Governor's lack of understanding of how teaching and learning actually happens in schools, not to mention a complete disregard for professional credentials. To implement these suggestions would be an abdication of our responsibility to provide all students with a safe and high-quality public education.
This idea is demeaning to teachers because it undervalues the professional degree, knowledge, skills, and practical experience they have gained by serving students for years in their classrooms.We know our state is also experiencing an acute shortage of nurses in our hospitals and medical facilities. Imagine for a moment if the Governor today had suggested filling our hospital clinics and emergency rooms with unskilled volunteers to cover for nurses who were out ill. Personally, I would prefer to have a 10-minute Telemed consultation with a knowledgeable registered nurse rather than several hours with an untrained person - however well-meaning - whose primary medical knowledge was acquired through Google searches and watching old episodes of ER.
This is not "thinking outside of the box." Rather, it follows a well-worn script from some which diminishes the value of educators and asserts they can be easily replaced. All Oklahoma districts already have a process for recruiting, training, and assigning quality substitutes for their classrooms. It involves background checks, orientation and training, and systems for accountability. Bixby Public Schools stands ready to assist any willing individual in this process to become a substitute teacher. The challenge for all of us is finding well-qualified individuals who are able to do more than simply supervise students for a few hours, but rather engage them in meaningful instruction aligned with content standards and curriculum for that course.
Again, the Governor's announcement does nothing to actually help school districts safely and effectively conduct in-person instruction. It simply perpetuates Secretary Walters' claims from last week that districts and teachers aren't doing enough to keep our schools open. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
Jenks Public Schools
At Jenks Public Schools, we appreciate anyone who is willing to be a substitute teacher and we are so grateful to the members of our community who have already stepped up to serve as substitutes. Asking state employees to substitute could be helpful, but there are still unanswered questions about how volunteers will be mobilized to districts across the state. Teachers are not a disposable resource. Teachers are highly qualified professionals, and they cannot simply be replaced. At JPS, in-person learning has always been the priority, and we believe a professional educator is still the most effective leader for a classroom
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