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Oklahoma is sending police officers into the classroom as a bandaid for its teacher shortage.
In January, Governor Kevin Stitt issued an executive order allowing state employees, including police officers, to fill in for substitute teachers at public schools at least through May 17. The day Stitt's order went into effect, an Oklahoma police department circulated photos of police officers substitute teaching a 6th grade class at Apple Creek Elementary.
The accompanying pictures, which were widely circulated on social media, feature two unmasked police officers in full uniform. The post on the Moore Police Department's Facebook page said the station is a "proud community partner," as it sends several on-duty officers to classroom settings. One officer, identified as Kevin Stromski, is pictured smiling seated at a teacher's desk with a QAnon cup in arm's reach. Moore Public Schools do not have a mask mandate in place for teachers or students.
Logan Watkins, a student at Stillwater High School, an hour away from Moore, said police officers are not taught to teach students, they're taught to arrest people. He said fear should not be invited into the classroom.
"I am already uncomfortable around police officers, being a Black individual," Watkins said. "I don't need them in the classroom."
Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ Oklahomans, said putting untrained substitutes and armed officers into classrooms is not a safe solution to the teacher shortage.
"We know that the presence of cops on school campuses is harmful to kids, especially students with disabilities and students of color," McAfee said. "Putting armed officers in charge of classrooms is dangerous."
McAfee shared the viral photos of Moore police officers substitute teaching in a local elementary school on social media. In one photo, officer Jeremy Lewis stood over a Black student, unmasked and strapped with weapons.
"Oklahoma students aren't your photo opp," McAfee said. "Given that these officers are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in their day to day job, to not have the basic courtesy to wear a mask in a classroom full of students who don't have a teacher present because of COVID-19 really just makes the point about how little they care."
In October, a nationwide survey reported 77 percent of school district leaders are having trouble hiring substitute teachers, according to an Education Week survey. Teacher shortages have been a problem in Oklahoma since before the pandemic, too. Nearly 15 percent of Oklahoma educators were looking for jobs outside of the profession at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Oklahoma Education Association.
See also: Wake County students organizing to get police out of their schools are seeing that North Carolina's School Resource Officer program is drenched in a history of racism and abuse.
In Stillwater, a city in Payne County, school district leaders said they are not dealing with a substitute teacher shortage as badly as other districts in the state. Yet, there are several banners throughout the city that read, "Now hiring substitutes and more." So far two state employees have applied to be substitute teachers in Stillwater since Governor Stitt's executive order was issued, the Stillwater Public Schools department said February 7.
Oklahoma isn't the only state bending teacher requirements due to shortages. Governors in Utah and New Mexico are also urging state employees to fill in substitute positions. Other states, including Missouri, Oregon, Michigan, and Kansas are lowering their substitute teacher requirements. Most states' first objective is to get rid of the bachelor's degree requirement, which will allow more unaccredited people to substitute teach.
In response to the governor's announcement, Jennifer Owens Hill, a teacher in Putnam City's School District, about 30 minutes away from Moore, said teachers are not to blame for how they respond to the pandemic and the lack of safety precautions Oklahoma school districts have taken in response to it. Working through the pandemic has pushed her to think about an early retirement.
Hill has taught in Oklahoma for 28 years. From her experience over the course of the pandemic, she said she is certain that virtual learning is not a long-term solution for the vast majority of students. The high school where she teaches serves students from Bethany and Warr Acres, both low-income communities where many students struggle to obtain internet access and the necessary electronic equipment to complete their coursework.
See also: Without paid leave, the South's COVID school policies cause a terrible trickle down for families.
One of Governor Stitt's listed reasons for issuing the executive order is to avoid school closures, but Hill says virtual classrooms do not mean schools are closing. Although she does not believe virtual learning is a feasible long-term solution for low-income students, it is a preferable immediate solution, she said.
"My students will get better instruction short term with my online lessons and support than they will with a substitute who is merely there as a monitor," Hill said. "I would love more background checked and fully trained substitutes."
Similar to emergency teacher certifications, which temporarily waive usual state teaching certification requirements, state agency employees are not required to have classroom experience. But while emergency teacher certifications do require individuals to hold a bachelor's degree, Governor Stitt's order allows people to substitute after only a cleared background check.
In the first two days after Stitt's executive order, more than 100 state employees filed to work as substitute teachers, as reported by The Oklahoman.
State agency employees who substitute will not receive extra pay, but they will be paid at the rate of their current state job. In Moore, a starting police officer's salary is about $55,000, according to the city's website. In comparison, the beginning teacher salary in the city is about $34,000, according to the Oklahoma Watch. Uncertified substitute teachers are paid $65 per day, compared to certified teachers who make $85 per day in Moore Public Schools.
Taunda Jenkins, a parent of a student at Southmoore High School in Moore, Oklahoma said she has seen firsthand how COVID-19 has affected Oklahoma teachers.
"For barely minimum wage, why would they put their life at risk?" Jenkins said. "It's just an awful situation for teachers. I have no answers except we need to do a better job of listening to teachers. I hate that the best ones are exhausted and ready to retire."