OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma will use millions in federal funding to purchase two reusable face masks for every student and teacher in the state to help ensure they’re protected from COVID-19 when they return to school, the governor announced Thursday.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said he’ll spend $10 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to purchase 1.7 million reusable face masks, 42,000 face shields, 1.2 million pairs of disposal gloves and 1.2 million disposable gowns. He said he plans to have the items distributed to public schools by Aug. 14.
He also issued an executive order Thursday requiring the State Department of Health to have a plan in place to test teachers monthly for COVID-19 starting Aug. 21.
“As your governor, I am committed to providing schools the resources and support they need to safely open for in-person learning,” Stitt said.
Stitt said he didn’t wear a face mask to his press conference announcing the plan to buy 1.7 million masks because he said he’s already recovered from a mild case of COVID.
Stitt said he’s committed to providing all the resources schools need to open for in-person instruction.
He said they’re not considering using federal funds to buy schools the cleaning supplies needed to sanitize and kill COVID-19.
“Schools are an essential part of our society,” he said. “It is critically important that they operate safely and effectively for all students. Our kids cannot miss another year of school.”
He said pediatric health officials have found that COVID-19 behaves differently in young people than other respiratory viruses like the flu. Children are less likely to be symptomatic or have severe cases of COVID-19 and may be less likely to spread the virus, he said.
In Oklahoma, just 1% percent of COVID-19 cases have been in children between ages 5 and 17. He said there have been less than 300 hospitalizations in that age group and one death.
“I encourage our schools to take all the precautions necessary like distance learning for children who are having underlying conditions that put them at higher risk of COVID-19, but keeping schools closed for all students has many harmful consequences,” he said.
He said 6 in 10 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and many consume half their calories each day at school. A lack of in-person instruction also keeps students from accessing a variety of health and social services, and it also widens the achievement gaps across income levels and different races.
Max Thomas, superintendent of Dover Public Schools in Kingfisher County, said his district will offer three options, but is recommending parents select on-site learning.
“Having the option to return to school in person is so important to us because it allows us to give each of our students the education and support they deserve regardless of the parents’ income, access to technology or family situation,” Thomas said.
Dover students also can choose to attend school fully online or use a blended model that allows virtual school and in-person participation in extracurricular activities like sports.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who did not participate in a press conference announcing the expenditure, thanked Stitt for his work in helping provide personal protective equipment to schools.
“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,” she said. “COVID-19 has created difficult decisions that require schools to offer families a number of instructional delivery options that best meet their needs.”
State Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, said she’s encouraged that Stitt is taking the recommendation to provide personal protective gear to heart.
“As a former educator, I am happy to see the governor’s support for in person education,” she said. “This is a bipartisan position. The question is how do we do it safely. Providing (protective gear) is a great step that we should build on together to reach the shared goal of returning to the classroom safely, and we are thankful to the countless school districts across our state that are working hard to provide a variety of options, both in person and virtual, so that our families may make the choice that best suits them when the time comes.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.