Stitt puts $10 million toward PPE for schools

Nuria Martinez-Keel The Oklahoman
Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks about PPE assistance for Oklahoma schools to conduct in-person instruction during a press conference at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on Thursday. Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma schools will receive $10 million in personal protective equipment and are expected to test teachers monthly for COVID-19.

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Thursday the state would distribute 1.7 million reusable masks, 42,000 face shields, 1.2 million gloves and 1.2 million gowns to schools statewide. The total PPE package costs $10 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Stitt pledged to provide the necessary PPE for schools to reopen in person. He also signed an executive order directing state health and education agencies to collaborate on teacher testing.

The state will have a plan in place by Aug. 21 for monthly testing of educators, Stitt said.

“Our kids cannot miss another year of school,” Stitt said at a news conference Thursday. “Keeping schools closed for all students has many harmful consequences.”

All public schools in the state were ordered on March 16 to close and finish the academic year with distance learning.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management will distribute PPE to regional warehouses where school districts can pick up supplies. Stitt said his intent is to have the PPE dispersed across the state by Aug. 15.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister did not attend the governor’s news conference Thursday, though Stitt said she was invited. The Oklahoma State Department of Education did not return a request for comment on the superintendent’s whereabouts.

Hofmeister released a statement after the news conference thanking the governor for investing in school PPE.

Stitt warned of a negative impact if schools don’t host in-person classes. He said families depend on school meals to feed their children, and a lack of face-to-face instruction could impair academic progress, particularly for disadvantaged students.

State Secretary of Human Services Justin Brown said teachers have a critical role in identifying signs of child abuse. Educators reported 767 cases of abuse and neglect in April 2019 but only 57 in April of this year.

The American Association of Pediatrics recommended schools aim for an in-person return. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also touted the benefits of face-to-face education, but said evidence is mixed as to whether reopening increases risk of coronavirus transmissions.

Early studies indicate children have a lower risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 when compared to adults, according to the CDC. However, children with certain underlying medical conditions are more likely to have severe symptoms.

Oklahoma’s only child death from COVID-19 occurred this month when Anna Carter, 13, died in Comanche County. Carter also suffered from juvenile scleroderma, an autoimmune disease.

More than 3,000 Oklahoma children between ages 5 and 17 have tested positive for COVID-19, and 830 age 4 and younger have had confirmed cases.

By mid-July, nearly all school districts in the state were preparing to welcome students back to classrooms, but record-high cases of COVID-19 forced schools to reconsider whether to reopen traditionally.