OKLAHOMA CITY – Some lawmakers Thursday questioned the wisdom of having an educator advocacy day at the Capitol as growing numbers of schools closed because of staffing shortages and COVID-19 case numbers soared.

Nearly 50 teachers, though, either took advantage of school closures or took a personal day to attend the Professional Oklahoma Educators’ forum to meet with Gov. Kevin Stitt, Ryan Walters, his secretary of education, and a small hand-picked group of legislators. They advocated for solutions to the state’s teacher shortage, reductions in class sizes, increased local control, four-day school weeks and improved broadband internet access in rural areas.

The event was held even as the state Department of Health reported increased community spread of COVID-19, and reported 10,502 new cases of the virus, and more than 100 districts reported they’ve had to close or revert to remote learning due to staffing shortages and student and teacher illnesses.

The meetings also happened two days after Walters received backlash from educators for a controversial tweet that called on all districts to use all of their available resources and administrative staff to cover classes to ensure students have access to an in-person education option. He said in the tweet that schools should “fulfill their obligation to educate our kids in Oklahoma.”

Ginger Tinney, executive director of the educators’ group, said they discussed the state’s COVID-19 situation at “great length,” but ultimately decided to let their members decide whether to proceed with the event that had been planned long before the recent spike in cases. She said they decided they wanted to hold the event before the session starts next month.

“Today was pretty fantastic,” she said. “I mean it was excellent. A lot of these teachers were not able to come, but the ones that did come, many of their schools were already closed, so it didn’t really change for them.”

She said they purposely made sure the group was small. They tried to reserve big venues so that social distancing was possible, and the event was strictly voluntary. She anticipates it will have a direct impact on education-related legislation that will be filed in the coming days.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, though described the event as “real strange,” and said he hadn’t even been notified that educators planned to visit the Capitol.

He said the timing of the advocacy event is “certainly off” in the wake of all the teacher shortages and illnesses, which have forced them to close schools. Oklahoma City Public Schools, which serve his constituents, for instance, are closed through the end of the week.

“It seems interesting that those who might obviously still be in the classroom aren’t,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the best use of time.”

He also questioned why educators would be at the Capitol advocating when lawmakers aren’t even in session and most are home in their districts.

“I absolutely believe in teachers’ right to come up here and make their voices heard,” he said. “But it makes more sense to do that when we actually have legislators up here.”

Tinney contended that the teachers who attended were healthy and the event is more impactful ahead of the session. When she asked attendees for response to criticism about whether the timing of the event could be questionable, Tinney said some of the teachers “were insulted, like do they think we’re just little kids and that they think we’re dumb.”

“They took offense at what the negativity was, and they were like, 'We’re adults. We can make our decisions, thank you,’ ” Tinney said.

She said people are still going to restaurants, buying groceries and getting out and doing things despite COVID-19.

Teachers, she said, have a right to have their voices heard, and they should be able to speak openly and freely to powerful people about serious issues.

“Don’t be insulting to teachers because they can make up their own minds,” Tinney said. “They are adults. They’re very intelligent. They can make up their own mind.”

Walters said that he was glad to speak with a group of teachers Thursday about ways to keep their schools open.

"We have to support our great teachers around the state who are being stretched thin during this time," he said.

Stitt's office did not respond to a request for comment about the timing of the event. But on Wednesday, his office reiterated that kids need to be in the classroom, and he said he appreciates schools that are doing everything they can to stay open.

State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, said he’d heard that some maskless individuals were advocating at the Capitol, which he said seemed “a little short sighted with what’s happening with omicron right now.”

However, he said the Professional Oklahoma Educators members have valid concerns.

“Teachers coming up to the Capitol to advocate on behalf of their profession, certainly are well within their rights to do that,” he said. “And if they chose to take some personal time to do that, that’s great.”

But he said if educators took away from classroom time while there’s such a drastic shortage of teachers, “that’s probably not sending the message that they’re trying to send.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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