OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As more districts across the state move to remote learning due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt says he has a way to prevent school closures.

In recent weeks, school districts across the state have been forced to either cancel class or move to virtual learning due to the number of teachers, staff, and students out sick with COVID-19.

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Stitt announced an executive order that will assist schools suffering from staffing and teacher shortages.

“I’ve heard from concerned Oklahomans who recognize that the past few weeks have really created some new challenges. Many schools don’t have the staff or the substitutes to actually fill every single classroom,” said Gov. Stitt.

Stitt says it is the state’s job to ensure that students have the option for in-person learning.

As a result, he said he is signing an executive order to help schools by authorizing state agencies to allow their employees to become substitute teachers.

“The core mission of all of our 32,000 state employees is to serve the public and to help make Oklahoma a top ten state. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen state employees, they’ve answered the call. They switched and moved to different state agencies where we needed help at that specific time. And right now, that means helping out, stepping up to help our schools,” he said.

He says his goal is to keep 100% of schools open as the pandemic goes on.

The ‘Guest Educator Program’ will help schools that are suffering from staffing shortages by matching them with state employees who are willing to serve as a substitute.

“We know that the best solution is our wonderful teachers across the state, in-person teaching young people. Second best thing is our substitute teachers,” Stitt said.

State Sen. Carri Hicks (D)- Oklahoma City Dist. 40 issued this statement:

“The safety of our students and educators should be the top priority by local decision makers. Today, the governor issued an executive order purporting to keep schools open, by urging public employees to substitute as classroom teachers two days a week. This is a short-sighted solution to the challenges our schools have been facing for 22 months during a global pandemic.

Without mitigation efforts to protect the health and safety of students, many who are immunocompromised, I fear for the long-term effects of this heavy-handed approach. We do not have an interchangeable workforce.

The executive order shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. It diminishes teachers’ contributions and expertise in the field of education, undermines the safety of our classrooms and ignores the complexity involved in educating a child.

The shortage of highly qualified educators has been at a critical level for years and this executive order is a charade. In 2012, the state of Oklahoma had 32 emergency certified teachers. In contrast, this school year, we have more than 3,600 emergency certified teachers in the state.

I stand with the hundreds of thousands of public-school parents who value, support and appreciate their local school district and educators. These are extraordinarily challenging times for educators, parents, and students, but together we will get through this.”

The Oklahoma Education Association also responded to the new initiative.

“The teacher pipeline and sub shortages were issues before the pandemic, and COVID has exacerbated these problems. While state employees and businesses may be able to help in the short term, we need to continue searching for long-term solutions.” 

OEA Pres. Katherine Bishop

The Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister issued the following statement on the Governor’s plan:

“We all agree it is best for schools to be open, and I appreciate that the governor has finally recognized this crisis. But we need caring, equipped teachers in classrooms and for the focus to be on learning. This gesture is a cup of water on a raging fire.  The immediate problem is that we are in the middle of a tremendous surge, impacting more than schools. Oklahomans are seeing the ramifications of COVID in their workplaces, churches and families. With the stroke of a pen, the governor could untie the hands of schools to mitigate spread and allow hospitals to increase capacity. The governor could immediately deploy the national guard to assist with school transportation and food services using millions of COVID relief dollars already in hand.As the State Superintendent, I ask the governor to take meaningful action now.”