Opinions vary on reopening OKC schools
Although their first day of school was months ago, Tuesday marked a new start for thousands of students in Oklahoma City Public Schools.
First through 12th graders returned to classrooms for the first time since March. The long-awaited Tuesday-Thursday and Wednesday-Friday class schedules have begun after the district started the school year Aug. 31 in virtual learning.
“For us, this feels like the first day of school,” Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown said.
Small groups of high-need students trickled into schools in September, and pre-K and kindergarten classes resumed twice a week Oct. 20.
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But for the greatest number of families in the school district, this week was the one circled on the calendar. The district has 31,500 students enrolled, most of whom are transitioning to in-person learning.
Irma Gudino-Saenz said the return to school is a relief for her family. She’s the caretaker of two Oklahoma City students, her 10-year-old daughter at Southeast Middle School and her 5-year-old nephew at Cleveland Elementary.
Her two school-age sons, age 13 and 6, attend a local charter school that’s still in virtual learning. She said the two in Oklahoma City Public Schools are eager to go back.
“I can tell you how my little girl has been excited,” Gudino-Saenz said. “She cannot stop talking about meeting her new friends that she’s met online or seeing older friends that she went to school with in elementary. I can’t take that from her. Seeing her light up like that, it’s just like, oh wow, we really were holding our children back, and they didn’t need that.”
Gudino-Saenz, the former Oklahoma City PTA Council president, said parents have been split on the issue. Half of the parents she knows are ready for their children to return while others, some of whom have lost loved ones to COVID-19, are against it.
Although the coronavirus is still a concern, Gudino-Saenz said she feels “more at peace” knowing Oklahoma City schools have safety protocols and require masks for all students and staff.
Some teachers said they don’t think safety measures are enough to prevent outbreaks. About a dozen educators protested and pleaded with the district school board on Monday not to bring students back into schools.
“Transitioning to virtual was tough, I’m not going to lie, but my students had started to believe in it. I had started to believe in it,” U.S. Grant High School teacher James Harding Jr. said during the school board meeting. “Now, we’re turning our back on it.”
A letter requesting district administrators delay in-person instruction until January has circulated among Oklahoma City teachers for the past week. The letter has received 420 signatures, one organizer said.
“We want to return to school to see our students,” the letter states. “Online learning has been difficult for students and teachers, but it is not possible for us to return to school safely and conduct classes in person. COVID-19 cases are rising, and every day looks scarier than the previous.”
Oklahoma’s rates of COVID-19 infections reached record highs this week while hospital space is at an all-time low for the pandemic. Other school districts in the metro area, who have taught in person for months, report hundreds of positive tests and quarantines every week among students and staff.
Superintendent Sean McDaniel told teachers on Monday their safety concerns are valid. Although the district invested $4.5 million in protective equipment and cleaning supplies, their risk of COVID-19 infection would be lower if schools continued virtual instruction.
But, mental health, academics and food insecurity were key factors in the decision to reopen classrooms. The superintendent said he worries about abuse continuing unseen and children going hungry without school meals.
With the firm belief that in-person schooling is the most effective form of education, McDaniel said he expects students have lost learning during the pandemic. Virtual classes would not close the gap for students already struggling, he said.
Administrators said they believe students will be more engaged and motivated in a physical classroom.
Some never logged in to online classwork since schools closed in March, said Brown, the deputy superintendent.
“We know that there will be some students that we see for the first time this week or we interact with for the first time this week,” Brown said.