As I type these words, I can feel my COVID-19 symptoms developing from a minor cough and sore throat to something that makes it difficult to see the words on my computer screen through the fluid accumulating behind my eyes. You see, I am a public school teacher in Oklahoma, where local school boards have been barred from implementing mask mandates unless the governor declares a state of emergency. To be perfectly honest, when SB 658 passed and was signed into law by Governor Kevin Stitt, my first thought was: “We won’t need masks at school come August anyway.” Holy shit, was I wrong!
Let me go back, however. Back to March of 2020. School had just let out for spring break, and the idea of us not coming back in a week because of this new pandemic was floating in the air (pun intended). My birthday almost always falls on spring break or the weekend before. Sunday, March 15, 2020 was before lock down in Oklahoma, but not by much. For my birthday, I chose to eat with my family at a burger joint called “The Garage.” Little did I know, that was the last time I would eat inside a restaurant for over 15 months.
Through March and April of 2020, my wife did the shopping by herself (less people in the store the better), and we were always masked up when we were in public. Our bubble for 14 months was restricted to just my wife and I, our two teenage sons, and my then 17-year-old daughter. We successfully navigated the complexities of my daughter traveling to and from our house to her mother’s house. Our boys returned to in-person school, including marching band, with masks, in the Fall of 2020. The most difficult part of 2020, by far, was distancing from my wife’s family, with whom we are very close. We enjoyed meals together outside and went camping a few times, but stayed out of each other’s homes from mid-March 2020 until late-May of 2021. And our church was fully virtual during that same time period. It was hard, but we knew it was the right thing to do.
Throughout the challenging pre-vaccine months of late 2020 and early 2021, no one close to me in Oklahoma contracted COVID-19. In November, 2020, we made the difficult decision to forego our annual trip to see my extended family in Arkansas for Thanksgiving. That decision proved to be wise, as my mom spent several days in the Intensive Care Unit with COVID-19 just days after being indoors with my siblings and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Out of caution, I made the painful choice not to see my parents from March of 2020 until July of 2021. And I have not seen my sisters since November of 2019.
After a Fall semester of 2020 that was almost entirely virtual, my district began an in-person split A/B schedule (with masks) in January of 2021. My wife, myself, and our three teenagers were all vaccinated between February and early June of 2021. In mid-June, we were fortunate enough to take a trip with my wife’s family to the beach (we had newly re-entered each others’ bubbles). In July, I was finally able to be with my parents, who traveled to Oklahoma to attend an outdoor graduation party for my daughter. And on our 5th wedding anniversary in early July, my wife and I felt comfortable enough to eat indoors at one of our favorite restaurants.
We relaxed a little, but we never stopped masking in stores and other indoor public places. No concerts. No movie theaters. No casinos. No OKC Thunder. And until now, no COVID.
Enter SB 658 and the Delta variant. It is quite undeniable that I contracted COVID at school because my exposure level elsewhere pales in comparison. This past Friday was our 8th day back to school. I noticed my throat was a little sore around lunch time, but was not alarmed at all. After all, I am vaccinated, and I wear a mask at school, with the exception of when I am lecturing from behind my standing desk for typically less than 15 minutes. But around 3:30 p.m. at the end of the school day, I felt strange enough to seek out a test and begin a self-quarantine from my family. This is not a story about the ineffectiveness of masks and vaccines. Quite the opposite. This is a story about the state of Oklahoma jeopardizing my health and creating a massive occupational hazard for public school educators and students statewide. I don’t blame my school, my administration, or my school district’s elected officials. Their hands are tied. It is true that a neighboring district recently defied the law and implemented a mask mandate at the direction of their own superintendent. But that does not, in any way, shift blame for my current aches and pains. I do not blame my students who have chosen not to mask up at school. I don’t even blame my colleagues who may not be vaccinated.
I want to be as clear as I possibly can. The blame for me contracting COVID-19 lies squarely with the following people: Oklahoma Senate co-authors of Senate Bill 658; Sen. Rob Standridge, Sen. David Bullard, Sen. Marty Quinn, Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, Sen. Cody Rogers, Sen. George Burns, Sen. Casey Murdock, Sen. Shane Jett, Sen. Joe Newhouse, Sen. Jake Merrick, Sen. Roland Pederson, Sen. Lonnie Paxton, Sen. Blake “Cowboy” Stephens, Sen. Nathan Dahm, and Sen. Jessica Garvin. The following Oklahoma House of Representatives co-authors of SB 658 are also to blame for me contracting COVID-19: Rep. Kevin West, Rep. Wendy Stearman, Rep. Justin Humphry, Rep. Kevin McDugle, Rep. Jay Steagall, Rep. Gerrid Kendrix, Rep. Denise Crosswhite Hader, Rep. Sean Roberts, Rep. David Hardin, Rep. Jim Olsen, Rep. Brad Boles, Rep. Dick Lowe, and Rep. Steve Bashore. Furthermore, I blame all Senators or Representatives who voted for SB 658.
And last but not least, blame lies firmly with Governor Kevin Stitt, who continues to refuse to respond to our ever growing medical crisis in Oklahoma caused by the Delta variant. I have absolutely no doubt that if Gov. Stitt had declared a state of emergency three weeks ago when it was clear that numbers would continue to rise, then my district would have kept our mask mandate in place from last year, and I would not be sitting here with a fever and an ache that is almost enough to overpower and silence my anger and frustration.
Shame on you Senators, Representatives, and Governor. Shame on you for creating an environment in my workplace where I can not adequately protect myself from infection. Shame on you for touting local control only when the locals in control conform to your ultra conservative values. Shame on you for placing all of Oklahoma’s students in danger of suffering the same fate as me. Shame on you for blindly parroting talking points about “woke school boards” and the “tyranny of mask mandates.” Shame on you for hating Oklahoma public schools so much that you are willing to risk the lives of students and educators in your effort to defund public education. And shame on you for separating me from my students, with whom I was just beginning to form new relational bonds.