OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s top education appointee is facing backlash after critics said he made a “insulting” and divisive social media post that accused educators of acting out of fear, not necessity, when deciding to close schools.
Some education advocates, meanwhile, questioned whether Ryan Walters, who serves as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of education, understands the challenges public schools are facing and why such decisions are being made.
"The first reaction should not be to shut schools down. It is the last resort. Parents are tired and children suffer when administrators act out of fear and not in the best interests of their kids and their future,” Walters wrote in his Tuesday tweet. “I call on schools to use all of their available resources and administrative staff to cover classes to ensure all of our students are given an in-person education option. They should fulfill their obligation to educate our kids in Oklahoma.”
The tweet came as dozens of districts statewide have announced plans to close or switch to virtual learning through early next week amid a resurgent COVID-19 virus that is sickening students and teachers and is exacerbating shortages of substitute teachers, cafeteria wokers and bus drivers.
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said Walters’ tweet is “out of touch” and divisive as it attempts to place “some kind of blame” on educators when support is most needed right now.
“It’s based on ignorance of the situation,” Rosecrants said. “There should be folks, parents, teachers and administrators who are just a.) confused and b.) horrified by such a take because they’re already on the front lines and living through this viral pandemic, which keeps coming back.”
A former teacher, Rosecrants said it comes as a surprise that Walters, who currently teaches a virtual class for McAlester Public Schools, would say something like that when everyone is struggling.
Cases tripled over the weekend at McAlester Public Schools with the district reporting 31 staff and 71 students testing positive and 566 total out as of Tuesday night.
Superintendent Randy Hughes said the district is closing Thursday with the goal of returning to in-person instruction after Monday.
“That’s five days and hopefully they can get better by then and we get people back and be able to effectively have class,” Hughes said.
Though Walters was aware his tweet swiftly generated a flood of outrage, he remained unapologetic Wednesday, saying that he stands for Oklahoma students and their parents who want and need schools to remain open.
“I’m going to unapologetically stand on behalf of Oklahoma students,” Walters said. “Parents are speaking loudly that they want an in-person option for their kids.”
Walters, who plans to run for state superintendent later this year, said he wants school administrators to use some of the $2 billion in federal coronavirus aid to boost substitute pay, and he expects district leaders to reach out to their communities and request help. Since his tweet, Walters said he’s had several great conversations and seen communities rally together. He said 450 districts remain open, and he anticipates an uptick in substitute applications as nonprofits and community leaders step up.
“The governor and I are working on what are all of the options, what can we do to help,” Walters said, adding that he’s signing up to become an occasional substitute teacher himself.
“I know that Oklahomans are going to rally together to help our schools stay open,” he said.
Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said Walters’ tweets were “perplexing” and “disturbing,” and highlighted a lack of knowledge of what is happening in schools. A shortage of substitute teachers has forced educators and administrators to work harder and harder in order to keep classes in person.
She said teachers are leaving the profession because they don’t feel that state officials know what’s happening in schools and aren’t listening. She also said they’re not asking what can be done to help but are instead ordering things must be done.
“So I absolutely understand the outrage that came about from that tweet,” Bishop said.
Bishop said schools are so short staffed that they’re cramming hundreds of kids into gymnasiums or cafeterias just so that there are enough staff to watch them.
She said that the state is still in the throes of a pandemic, and there are going to be points in time where districts have to move to distance learning for the well-being of everyone in the school systems and community.
Bishop said, “This is their last resort, and this is not an easy decision that they’re making to have to move to distance learning.”
Hulbert Public Schools, in eastern Oklahoma, shifted to virtual school Thursday and Friday after over 20% of its student body either tested positive for COVID-19 or were in quarantine.
Chisholm Public Schools, in north Enid, reported that about 13% of its 1,150 students and 17 staff members were ill Wednesday. Of those, 44 students had tested positive for COVID-19. The district had 10 substitute teachers working.
In Woodward, Superintendent Kyle Reynolds said there were 11 students and seven staff members out due to positive tests along with 65 students and 3 staff members on quarantine for close contact. The district had 18 substitutes working Wednesday, but was still two substitutes short.
Muskogee Public Schools reported 16 staff and 82 students had tested positive for COVID-19 over the past seven days. Several districts in the area have transitioned to virtual learning.
Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for Stitt, said that since Day 1, Stitt and Walters have fought “tooth and nail to keep schools open.”
“Gov. Stitt stands with Secretary Walters,” she said. “Kids need to be in the classroom, and he appreciates schools that are doing everything they can to stay open.”
In a tweet, Rick Cobb, superintendent of Mid-Del Schools, said it’s “insulting” that Walters would think closure is any district’s “first reaction.”
“We’ve been pulling all available staff to cover classes. The fact that #oklaed schools and districts have maintained instruction as long as we have shows your complete lack of situational understanding,” he wrote. Cobbs’ district plans to close its doors starting Thursday due to a rise in COVID-19 cases, high teacher and student absences and staffing shortages in school kitchens, on buses and among substitute teachers.
Pam Deering, executive director of the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, said that they’re proud of administrators who have weathered “this nearly two-year storm of uncertainty” while being innovative to keep schools open.
“We have seen these school leaders substitute in classrooms when teachers were sick, serve lunches for cafeteria workers and roll up their sleeves for custodial duty when staffing was low,” Deering said. “They have worked within their local communities to do what’s best for their individual schools and district – and we know they will continue to do all of these things, and more, to ensure all of the needs of Oklahoma’s public school children are met throughout the entirety of this pandemic.
Katherine Jeanne in Enid, Brian King in Tahlequah, Johnny McMahan in Woodward, Adrian O’Hanlon III in McAlester and Cathy Spaulding in Muskogee contributed to this report.