OKLAHOMA CITY (THE OKLAHOMAN) – Most public schools in the state are preparing to open their doors for a traditional return this year, but school will be anything but ordinary.
School leaders have spent the summer stockpiling protective equipment, adding technology and redrawing class schedules to prepare for education in the era of COVID-19.
A survey by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association of 277 public school districts shows the vast majority plan to return to the classroom.
More than 90% of districts said they will offer full-time in-person instruction and 88% will have a full-time virtual learning option. Only 66% will have a blend of both methods.
As cases of COVID-19 steadily rose through June and July, Oklahoma teachers, parents and the public called into question a traditional return to school.
Putnam City and Oklahoma City Public Schools announced this week they will start the first nine weeks of the academic year with at-home learning.
Oklahoma City schools will start three weeks later than expected on Aug. 31. The district needs that extra time to prepare for a virtual start, Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown said.
“We need to teach kids how to learn remotely and our teachers how to teach remotely,” Brown said during a virtual news conference Wednesday. “It’s an opportunity that we’re going to take advantage of and really prepare our teachers and our students but also our families.”
Other large school districts in the metro are still set for face-to-face classes, including Norman, Edmond and Moore.
A majority of surveyed districts, 74%, did not consider delaying the school year, according to the OSSBA. Only 15% said they did consider it. Fewer, only 12%, considered a virtual start while 71% said they did not.
Mask wearing has become a hot-button issue in education. Oklahoma’s largest teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, issued a list of demands that included a mask mandate for everyone inside school buildings.
“We are willing to teach and learn in safe environments,” OEA President Alicia Priest said in a July 16 news conference. “But, safety must be our first priority. If it’s not, kids will die, educators will die.”
Just over half the districts who responded to the OSSBA, 58%, will require masks in areas where social distancing is not possible, and 64% will require them for children riding buses. Fifty-six percent will provide face coverings to students.
But, only 19% said students would have to wear masks in classrooms, and 20% would mandate them for students in all areas of a school building.
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister advocated for a mask mandate for all public schools in the state, but the Oklahoma State Board of Education declined to issue that requirement in a narrow vote on Thursday.
The board voted 4-3 to recommend, not require, safety protocols for masks, closures and school activities but gave districts clearance to decide their own plans.
Many districts told the OSSBA they would encourage students to wear masks but wouldn’t mandate them.
However, far more agreed on providing face coverings for employees — 77%. Employees in 60% of responding districts must wear face coverings where social distancing isn’t possible and while driving or monitoring buses. Only 25% would require masks for employees in all areas of a building and 23% in classrooms.
Responses showed most districts are purchasing personal protective equipment for staff and students along with sanitizing products, gloves and plexiglass screens.
Some reported difficulties finding PPE or necessary funds.
“Money is going to be an issue,” one district said in the survey.
Others said their PPE stockpiles were limited and disinfecting wipes are nearly impossible to find.
“I believe we are going to be in short supply,” a respondent wrote.
Staffing shortages also could become an issue. Eighty-four percent of districts said they are concerned they might have too few teachers because of COVID-19, and 75% said the same for support staff.
Ninety-one percent said they might have a shortage of substitute teachers.
The survey found many districts plan to limit student interactions by staggering lunch, recess and release periods. Some said they will have students eat meals in their classrooms instead of the cafeteria.
Others will monitor passing periods and reroute bus schedules to ensure social distancing.
“Only (pre-K) and kindergarten students will use the cafeteria,” one district wrote. “Our 1st through 8th grade students will eat breakfast and lunch in their classroom. Our Art teacher will move to classrooms. No band class this year.”
The Oklahoma Media Center, launched by Local Media Foundation with financial support from Inasmuch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. This story is part of that effort.