OKC schools to return with in-person and virtual classes
The largest school district in Oklahoma is pushing toward both traditional and virtual education in the 2020-21 school year with a device for every student, and extensive health protocols.
Oklahoma City Public Schools unveiled its plan to return to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic during a Board of Education meeting Monday night. The school year begins Aug. 10 for the district, no matter what form of instruction students receive.
As COVID-19 numbers and state guidelines change, so could the school district’s plans, Superintendent Sean McDaniel said in a virtual news conference Tuesday morning.
“We anticipate right now that we’re going to be able to start school on Aug. 10 in person,” McDaniel said. “That is our hope. We think our kids desperately need that, but we are smart enough and flexible enough to be able to see what’s happening around us and adapt as needed.”
All students in third through 12th grade will have the choice to return to school or opt for a full-time virtual learning option.
The district will encourage children in pre-K through second grade to attend in-school classes. Interpersonal interactions and hands-on activities are central to early childhood learning and are difficult to recreate virtually, Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown said.
A remote learning option will be available for families who don’t want their children to attend pre-K through second grade in person. Brown said the district hasn’t yet found an online tool for these grades, and the remote learning plan could still incorporate face-to-face instruction.
“We are just not comfortable with the options we’ve seen so far,” Brown said. “We don’t think anything appropriately even gets close to what we can do at the (school) site for such a critical group. We will have an option, and it will be a high-quality option.”
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Unlike distance learning this spring, a set of teachers will be assigned to virtual classes and will grade students’ work. Students could access online assignments at any hour of the day, seven days a week, but engagement requirements will count toward attendance.
Up to a third of all students in the district might choose the virtual option, Brown said, based on an informal survey by the district of teachers and families. That number could rise given recent spikes in COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma.
“We believe that direct instruction is the best instruction,” Brown said. “We know that some parents and students are ready to move back to traditional learning and be back in the classroom. ... Not everyone is comfortable in that move back towards normalcy.”
Every student in the district will receive a mobile device — a significant development with a student population of nearly 35,000.
Oklahoma City schools would join Putnam City, Edmond and Norman Public Schools as one of the few large districts in the state to provide a device to every child enrolled.
Students in pre-K through second grade will be assigned an Apple iPad. All other students will receive a Google Chromebook.
The district will give internet hotspots to families with no connection service at home. Administrators said about a third of all students will need a hotspot.
Oklahoma City schools considered this initiative in past years, but the idea of distributing devices to every child was on the back burner until COVID-19, McDaniel said.
“What the pandemic certainly did was accelerate our conversation,” he said. “We discovered during the pandemic some things that really prompted us to say, ‘We don’t have a choice here. We’ve got to work on connectivity, and we’ve got to work on devices because so many of our kids do not have one or both of those things.’”
Many children without technology or internet service had to rely on take-home packets to continue schoolwork after April 6, when all public schools in the state were ordered to finish the academic year remotely.
The Oklahoma City district will depend on its $17.3 million allocation from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to buy devices, hotspots and equipment to protect against the virus.
The district could increase wages for substitute teachers this school year with CARES Act funds. Brown said this could help mitigate loss of substitute teachers, many of whom are retirees.
Students who return to traditional classes will attend their regularly assigned school. However, a host of health and safety protocols will change daily school life.
Along with iPads and Chromebooks, schools are purchasing face coverings for staff, hand sanitizer stations for every bus and classroom, and deep-cleaning services. Schools will install plexiglass dividers in cafeterias, front offices and other high-traffic areas.
All students and staff will have their temperature checked every day. Face coverings will be required for every staff member and visitor.
Students will not be required to wear masks, but schools will provide and encourage them. The district decided against the mandate so schools would not have to discipline students for failing to wear a mask, Brown said.
If all public schools in the state are ordered to close again, all Oklahoma City schools would continue exclusively with online learning.
If schools are forced to limit the number of people in a building at one time, the district could shift all students in third through 12th grade to full-time virtual classes.
Another contingency is an alternating schedule mixing in-person and at-home schooling. Only a fraction of the student body would come to school certain days of the week.
Schools expect students to have lost learning after five months away from the classroom, said Tracy Skinner, assistant superintendent of academics. Lesson plans and assignments will target where they might fall short on essential academic standards.
“We know the struggles that they’re going to come in with,” Skinner said. “When we ended instruction we knew where students were at.”