The coronavirus pandemic has erased the whiteboard for Oklahoma schools, leaving superintendents standing in front of it, sketching out their plans for reopening two months from now.
Last week the Oklahoma State Department of Education unveiled a range of options – a 74-page framework that suggests districts should be ready to pivot any number of ways given the uncertainties of COVID-19 and limited school resources.
The leaders of Oklahoma’s 511 districts and 26 charter schools will make the final decisions. Some have rolled out their strategies. There are many aspects to consider, including how to alter the school calendar, provide full or partial distance learning, round up personal protective equipment and keep everyone socially distanced, even on buses.
Meanwhile, many parents and students are wary.
Superintendent Deborah Gist said Tulsa Public Schools “will be fully prepared to welcome back all of our students full time, if we are able to do so,” but also will be ready to react to the “complex and rapidly changing situation.”
The stakes are high, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.
Educators will have their work cut out to “reclaim the ground that has been lost and move forward,” she said in an interview. “We have to be laser-focused on the learning gap that has developed. That will take years to close.”
Here are some questions and answers about reopening schools:
Will your school be safe and clean?
Districts are advised to establish health protocols, including what to do if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. The person should be isolated, sent home immediately and encouraged to be tested. They should not return until they meet Center for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for being around others.
The framework also states schools should promote use of face masks for staff and students, encourage employees to make or buy their own reusable masks or find community volunteers to provide them.
At Tulsa Public Schools, officials said estimates show a one-day supply of masks for about 35,000 students and 6,000 employees would cost the district around $40,000.
The cost of cleaning supplies and equipment “are a lot more expensive than in the past,” said Frederick Public School Superintendent Shannon Vanderburg. The district, 130 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, is stocking up on cleaning supplies and installing touchless faucets in restrooms and water bottle fillers to replace water fountains. Vanderburg has not decided if he will add custodial staff or have current employees work longer hours to clean buildings overnight.
How will schools maintain social distancing?
District officials must consider adjustments to dozens of daily routines to ensure students will have minimal contact with people and surfaces throughout the buildings. Officials could stagger hall passing times or serve lunch in classrooms. They may also close common areas where staff members gather.
For areas like cafeterias, auditoriums, gyms and playgrounds, schools should consider dividing students into groups small enough to maintain social distancing, according to the framework.
Stacy Womack, first-year superintendent at Pawnee Public Schools, 55 miles west of Tulsa, says transportation poses the biggest problem when it comes to social distancing. “It’s going to be a logistical battle,” Womack said.
As a rural district, Pawnee brings in about 40 percent of its 645 students on buses. Womack said it’s not feasible to run the long routes twice to keep more distance between students. The district will use new equipment to sanitize buses daily, she said. Three machines that spray sanitizer will be purchased, one for each campus.
Many districts struggle to employ bus drivers, so even if they could add routes, hiring more drivers seems unlikely. And drivers who are older retirees — those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 — may not want to continue working in the crowded, closed environment.
The state framework acknowledges social distancing on buses isn’t viable for most districts. It suggests opening bus windows, whenever possible, to increase the flow of fresh air.
How much distance learning will there be?
The upcoming school year is likely to include short-term disruptions to instruction due to COVID-19, so all districts should be prepared to pivot quickly to distance learning, according to the framework.
Some districts are already prepared. Moore Public Schools is offering its 25,000 students three options — the traditional classroom setting, a combination of online and on-site learning for students with health issues, and 100 percent virtual learning for students in grades 3-12.
“It’s a huge ordeal. It’s a big initiative,” Superintendent Robert Romines said. Students automatically are enrolled in on-site learning but can request one of the other options.
The blended option allows students who are medically fragile to learn from home while the pandemic continues, Romines said. A student with severe asthma or who is undergoing chemotherapy might begin the school year at home and transition to the classroom when their situation allows. A student who starts school in the classroom could switch to learning from home following surgery.
Having that option also allows an individual school or all 35 district buildings to pivot to distance learning quickly in case of a large COVID-19 outbreak, Romines said.
Students must commit to the virtual option until the semester or year of coursework is completed, he said. This self-paced option might be used by students juggling athletics and leadership activities with schoolwork, those who are uncomfortable being in a classroom due to the pandemic or those who must work to help support their families because of lost income.
Deer Creek Public Schools in Edmond also has announced new options for its 6,800 students. Families received a notice that they can apply for Deer Creek Academy, which will provide “customized, virtual education” both 100 percent online or in a combination of classroom and at-home studies.
How will districts pay for the extra costs?
Most districts will receive emergency federal relief dollars available through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. The $145 million available to Oklahoma school districts is being distributed through the Title 1 formula, which is based on the number of low-income students served by the district.
In addition to cleaning supplies, Frederick Public Schools is using its $221,964 in CARES dollars for technology. The district purchased 150 Chromebooks, so all 850 students will have one for distance learning and will buy hot spots to create wireless internet connections for families without one, Vanderburg said.
He said the federal relief funds should cover all his costs. That is not the case in many districts.
“Right now, they are overwhelmed with the cost of dealing with COVID-19,” Hofmeister said. Federal relief funding for schools “doesn’t come close to covering those expenses.”
School districts are confronted with huge costs for protective equipment and disinfectants, as well as for the technology and connectivity to reach all students, she said.
Moore Public Schools is using its more than $2 million in CARES funds for devices and learning management system expenses. It also secured a 75 percent reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, Romines said.
Will academic quality suffer?
Pawnee Superintendent Womack worries about students who have fallen behind because schools were closed for the last quarter of 2019-20. “That’s a really critical time for those emerging readers in a normal setting. Sometimes that’s when the light bulb starts to really kick on,” she said.
Womack has reassigned a fifth-grade teacher to be an “interventionist” for students in grades 2 to 4 who need help with reading or math. “I think it’s important to have someone focused on that specifically,” she said.
Deer Creek parent Jaclyn Foley said her son, who just finished seventh grade and whom she described as an introvert, loved doing his school work from home; teachers responded to his email questions quickly. It motivated him to work hard and finish his lesson earlier in the week so he could have free time to play video games, she said.
Her son told her he had the same amount of work, but it was easier.
Romines said that going forward, the rigor of online curriculum will be much more robust than what districts were able to offer in April with little warning.
“Still, you’re never going to be able to replace face-to-face interaction with your peers and teachers,” he said.