Four days of in-person classes on the table for OKC schools
Oklahoma City Public Schools is mulling a return to four-day-a-week schooling, as COVID-19 rates decrease and surrounding districts leave split class schedules behind.
The district school board discussed three options Monday night: make no changes to the current two-day school schedules, bring only elementary students back four days a week or have all students attend four days week.
No student would return four days a week until April 5, if the district decides to make that change. Mondays would remain a virtual learning day.
All students in Oklahoma City schools are attending school two days a week on a split A/B schedule, with the exception of families who enrolled in a full-time virtual curriculum.
The school board didn’t take a vote or make a formal recommendation on the issue Monday night.
The final decision rests with Superintendent Sean McDaniel. Prior board votes gave the superintendent authority to decide which forms of instruction to pursue in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
McDaniel wouldn’t commit to announcing a decision this week. If approved, a return to four-day classes would be weeks away, and conditions have been known to change rapidly during the pandemic.
The superintendent said the Oklahoma City-County Health Department has told the district it is confident students in pre-K through fourth grade could attend four days a week with staff vaccinations, COVID-19 testing, air filtration, disinfection and mask mandates in place.
COVID-19 rates in Oklahoma County are the lowest since September with 17.9 new infections per 100,000 residents this week.
Several surrounding districts have restored classes to four or five days a week or have plans to do so, including Deer Creek, Edmond, Putnam City, Midwest City-Del City, Mustang, Norman and Putnam City schools.
Implementing four-day schedules would mean the number of students in schools at one time would double. Classrooms are half full under the A/B schedule.
Instead of returning five days a week, administrators said having a virtual day on the weekly calendar would allow for scheduling flexibility and keep schools in the practice of online learning in case it becomes necessary in the future.
The district’s COVID-19 Task Force recommended all students return four days a week. The task force is made up of top district administrators, a school principal, an assistant principal and Torie Shoecraft, president of the district’s teachers union.
However, a leading member of the task force, Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown, supported only elementary students returning four days a week.
Brown said the district could not meet social distancing guidelines in middle and high schools if all students returned at the same time. He said it also isn’t feasible to organize secondary students into collective pods because of their varying class schedules and shared hallways.
Grouping students into pods is much easier at the elementary level where students typically spend the day in one classroom with the same teacher and classmates, he said.
McDaniel and Brown acknowledged that spending more days in school would allow students greater access to district resources.
“You double the number of times that they have an opportunity to see a nurse,” Brown said. “You double the number of times that they have an opportunity to see a counselor. You double the number of days that we get to put eyes on them to make sure that they’re OK.”
The possibility for students' basic needs going unmet and child abuse continuing unseen were critical factors in the district’s decision to reopen schools.
Charles Henry has been the most vocal board member against in-person learning this school year. He urged the board to make the final decision on whether to return four days a week, not the superintendent.
Henry said advice from the city-county health department shouldn’t be the “end-all measurement” influencing district decisions because the agency is made up of mostly government appointees and only two medical doctors, which is false.
The department’s Board of Health includes two medical doctors and other appointees, but as a public health agency, it employs several doctors, nurses and medical professionals who have provided guidance and services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recommendations from city-county health officials are only one element affecting school decision-making. Feedback from the district’s COVID-19 task force, family and staff surveys, and a Teacher Advisory Committee are also considered.
Ruth Veales, the longest-tenured board member, said she preferred remaining in the A/B schedule to maintain consistency for district families who have endured a tumultuous school year. Meg McElhaney said she didn’t believe the district was ready for students to return full time.
Board Chairperson Paula Lewis and Vice Chairperson Mark Mann said they supported the idea of elementary students attending four days a week to make “slow and steady” progress toward normalcy.
The rest of the board didn’t voice a preference for any of the three options.
What families and school staff want
Oklahoma City schools surveyed students, parents and caregivers, and school-based personnel about their preferences for instruction.
The district received responses from nearly 5,000 students currently attending class on the A/B schedule. Forty-four percent said they want to return to school full time, and another 44% said they wanted to stay in a hybrid schedule. Twelve percent said they preferred fully virtual learning.
Half of the responding students said they feel somewhat safe attending school in person, and another 34% said they feel extremely safe. Eleven percent feel somewhat unsafe, and 5% feel extremely unsafe.
More than 5,100 parents and caregivers weighed in, and 53% said they wanted full-time schooling for their children. Forty-one percent said they preferred the hybrid schedule and 6% preferred virtual classes.
The A/B schedule was more popular among the 3,395 teachers and staff who responded, as 61% wanted the district to keep it. Only 29% wanted students back full time, and 10% said they preferred classes to be virtual.