OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s governor plans to allow school teachers and staff to opt out of his highly touted monthly COVID-19 testing plan when educators begin to return for in-person instruction.
Education advocates, meanwhile, said they’re watching closely to see how the state departments of health and education decide to implement Gov. Kevin Stitt’s “optional monthly” testing of every teacher and support employee.
In his executive order, Stitt said the plan “should prioritize the testing of people physically working in school buildings and may include creating private-public partnerships to increase testing capacity and coordinating with county health departments and other stakeholders as necessary.”
Oklahoma State Health Department officials said Tuesday the plan will be finalized by Aug. 21, and all testing will be paid for using federal coronavirus aid funding.
“The devils are in the details,” said Katherine Bishop, vice president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “I think it could be beneficial to districts and employees, but then so many questions come up about it.”
For instance, Bishop said no one knows what types of tests state health officials plan to use and how quickly the results will come. Teachers wonder if the test results will be caught up in Oklahoma’s already existing backlog with some lingering at least a week for their results. She said districts also are concerned they’ll have obtain the necessary testing supplies.
“What’s the purpose of once a month?” she asked. “What we don’t want to see is another broken supply chain put on the districts like there is with cleaning supplies.”
Bishop said a lot of teachers don’t want mandatory testing. They’ve said they don’t want to take a test away from someone who needs it.
But she said educators do want to know what the state plans to do if a teacher tests positive.
“(The proposal) just kind of came out of left field,” Bishop said. “It can’t be we’re going to give you (personal protective equipment), and we’re going to test you once a month, and everything is great, you should feel safe.”
Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey said the governor is offering personal protective equipment and testing for teachers returning to the classroom “so they can feel confident in safely providing essential in-person learning for our children.
“The governor is directing (the state Health Department) to ensure testing is available for the teachers who would like to access it,” she said. “Local school boards also have the authority to provide for additional testing based on the needs in their communities.”
In a letter to its members, the Norman-based Professional Oklahoma Educators stressed that the testing will be “optional.”
“Although there is some federal agency authority to suggest that regular mandatory testing of employees, whether or not they have been exposed or are symptomatic, may be legal, nothing in the law mandates such regular mandatory testing of employees,” Ginger Tinney, the group’s executive director wrote.
Tinney said the group believes that school districts would be required to show necessity and a threat to health and safety of others in order to mandate COVID-19 testing.
“At this time, we do not believe Oklahoma school districts will universally adopt a regular mandatory testing policy for all educators in their school district,” Tinney wrote.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.