Oklahoma joins growing list of states closing public schools

BY PAUL MONIES
Oklahoma Watch &
JENNIFER PALMER
Oklahoma Watch
03/18/2020 10:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Middle school students work on computers during a writing class at Bridge Creek Middle School in Blanchard on Nov. 21, 2019. WHITNEY BRYEN/OKLAHOMA WATCH
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org. COURTESY
In an unprecedented move, Oklahoma public schools are closed until at least April 6 as the state continues to calibrate its reaction to the COVID-19 virus outbreak.

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the Oklahoma State Department of Education will closely monitor the COVID-19 situation with state health experts to determine if it will be necessary to extend the closure.

The state Board of Education met March 16 and approved the statewide closure, which applies to all public schools – traditional, charter and virtual. All instructional and extracurricular activities, grading, professional development and conferences are suspended during that time, but schools can still provide meals, maintain buildings and perform other essential business functions. 

“We know this impacts a lot of families. We did not make this decision without a lot of thought,” Hofmeister said. “Once we saw community transmission, that was the time to seek closure.”

It’s too early to determine how the closure will impact state testing, but Hofmeister said the state will seek a federal waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, if needed. The current testing window is April 20 through May 15 for grades 3-8. High school students are assessed through the ACT or SAT, but national test dates have been postponed. 

“We’re not going to insist on testing if it’s not appropriate,” Hofmeister said. 

Thirty-five other states had already enacted statewide school closures as of March 16.

Oklahoma now has 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Oklahoma State Department of Health said March 17. 

Individual districts were already considering shuttering. Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s largest district, scheduled an emergency board meeting for 10 a.m. March 17 to discuss discontinuing classes, necessary changes to employees’ work schedules and leave, and other measures, according to an agenda posted March 16. That came less than 24 hours after district Superintendent Sean McDaniel sent a message to families saying the district would take a few additional days over spring break to “gather information and seek guidance from state and national agencies” before deciding whether to remain closed.

Tulsa Public Schools’ board held an emergency meeting on March 16 to consider Superintendent Deb Gist’s recommendation to extend spring break by a week or more.

Most Oklahoma public schools are already on spring break this week, so officials had a little more leeway for planning purposes than other states that have already had their spring breaks.

Still, closing schools can have a multitude of effects, from child nutrition and new testing schedules to the possibility of missing out on the rites of passage like prom and graduation. Also, how should hourly support staff like cafeteria workers, custodians and janitors get paid during the closure?  

Gov. Kevin Stitt on March 12 said he didn’t want to recommend closing schools too early, but if Oklahoma experienced community spread, he would shutter the schools. The governor announced a state emergency on March 15, but his executive order made no mention of schools. 

Stitt said March 16 that closing schools was the right thing to do based on “current guidance from the CDC.”

“This closure will allow us time to further understand how COVID-19 is affecting Oklahoma and give students and staff a period of time to be protected from further community spread of the virus,” Stitt said in a news release. “We know closing schools has a significant impact on families, and we are committed to doing what we can to lessen that impact as we work to prioritize the health and safety of all Oklahomans.” 

Among those calling for schools to close were Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City. He said on Facebook late March 15 that CDC recommendations to limit large gatherings of people should extend to schools. 

“Believe me when I say I do not make this request lightly,” Dunnington said in the Facebook post.  “I have children in Oklahoma City Public Schools and understand the disruption it will cause to working families. I’m also acutely aware of the nutrition needs our communities will need to meet for those children that depend on school for more than academics.”

“We need to be intentional and we need to be proactive,” he said.

Texas’ education commissioner told superintendents and lawmakers on March 15 to prepare for long-term school closures, potentially through the end of the school year, according to the Texas Tribune.

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