Summer programs aim to help students impacted by pandemic
Oklahoma Superintendent Joy Hofmeister announced the state is investing $14 million in school programs to help students recover from the pandemic.
Addison Kliewer, Oklahoman
Oklahoma public schools are preparing for a 2021-22 school year that many hope will closely resemble pre-pandemic life.
Most school districts, excluding those that had four-day schedules before the pandemic, are planning to return to in-person schooling five days a week in the fall, barring an unexpected rise in COVID-19 cases.
Even districts with the strictest COVID-19 measures aim for a more traditional reopening. Oklahoma City Public Schools expects to have face-to-face classes five days a week this fall after spending most of the previous year in fully virtual learning.
Mask mandates, hybrid school weeks, isolated classrooms and socially distanced desks are phasing out, as district leaders keep their fingers crossed that low infection rates hold.
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But in many districts, full-time virtual programs are here to stay, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
A sense of optimism is growing that schools could get back to regular operations.
“As we’re starting to bring people together in person this summer, you can see the excitement that our school officials have to get back to work for students without the dark cloud of COVID-19,” Hime said.
Mask mandates effectively ruled out
Harrah Public Schools stayed open five days a week for all but two weeks of the school year, but student life was distinctly different, Superintendent Paul Blessington said.
The district canceled all assemblies, book fairs and guest speakers. Fundraisers that could bring students in contact with the wider community were called off.
Most noticeably, all students and staff were required to wear masks while in school.
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“As far as the classroom goes, from 7:30 to 3:30 we required masks,” Blessington said. “Anyone that came into the building was masked up. I know everyone was at the end of their rope with it by April and May.”
School gatherings and assemblies are expected to make a comeback in Harrah, but the mask mandate is not, he said.
Under a new state law, no school district is allowed require mask wearing unless Gov. Kevin Stitt declares a state of emergency for the district’s locality. The governor’s office says another emergency declaration because of COVID-19 is unlikely.
Stitt signed Senate Bill 658 into law last month to make mask mandates contingent upon an emergency declaration.
The governor lifted Oklahoma’s state of emergency on May 4 after more than a year in place.
Stitt didn’t remove the order because COVID-19 rates fell below a certain benchmark, but rather because a state of emergency, designed to allow governments to cut through red tape, no longer served much purpose in the pandemic response, said Charlie Hannema, the governor’s communications chief.
Stitt’s office doesn’t expect a COVID-19 state of emergency to return unless Oklahoma sees dramatic changes in characteristics of the coronavirus.
“You never say never,” Hannema said. “I would be very surprised if the state of emergency came back.”
Some school leaders say they wish a mask mandate were still an option at their disposal without the governor’s permission.
Santa Fe South Charter Schools enforced a mask mandate in its south Oklahoma City facilities throughout the school year.
Superintendent Chris Brewster said it should be a local choice made between a school district and health officials.
“I want my board, my leadership team and my community to take the data and recommendations from health authorities and make that decision,” Brewster said. “I don’t need Republicans and Democrats telling me what’s in the best interest of my kids’ health unless they’re health officials.”
The governor and the Oklahoma State Board of Education, most of whom Stitt appointed, rejected the idea of enforcing a statewide mask mandate in schools, saying local school districts should decide that for themselves.
“This is far too over-politicized,” Brewster said. “If we say we value local control, then that should be something that we maintain.”
New cases are decreasing, but so are vaccinations
Oklahoma’s seven-day average of daily cases, which peaked in January at over 4,200 infections per day, dropped to 159 this week, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
However, vaccination rates have slowed significantly in Oklahoma. The state ranks near the bottom 10 for its percentage of vaccinated residents.
Only 14% of Oklahoma children age 12-17 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s below the national average of 28% for that age group, according to New York Times data.
Although local and national health officials haven’t yet released guidance for the 2021-22 school year, current recommendations indicate vaccinated students and staff might get relief from quarantines, which caused thousands of children to miss school and occasionally forced schools to close temporarily.
Vaccinated individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 don’t need to quarantine unless they develop symptoms, according to recommendations from the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is still advised to isolate for at least 10 days.
The governor and state health officials announced in January that students and teachers exposed in a classroom setting wouldn’t need to quarantine at all if everyone in the room were masked. Several school districts quickly declined the policy and continued quarantines for classroom exposures.
The coronavirus remains a threat to school operations, despite decreasing infection rates. Taft Middle School closed for summer a week early on May 19 because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
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Contact tracing revealed evidence of community spread within the Oklahoma City middle school, prompting health officials to urge its early closure. Nine people tested positive and 150 were exposed.
Districts are encouraging and facilitating vaccinations for students ahead of the 2021-22 school year. Some, including Oklahoma City schools, have scheduled vaccine clinics over the summer exclusively for students.
The city-county health department is planning to vaccinate children as young as 5 by September. Vaccine manufacturers have already begun clinical trials for the under-12 age group.
Federal aid fosters ‘outside the box’ thinking
Billions in federal aid dollars will open new possibilities for typically cash-strapped Oklahoma school districts. State education funding also will increase this year.
“This is one of the first times I think in a while that superintendents have been able to think outside the box,” said Matt Holder, superintendent of Sulphur Public Schools.
The federal government allocated $2.31 billion to Oklahoma K-12 schools across three packages of relief funds. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan offered the largest stimulus injection of $1.5 billion, which went out to Oklahoma schools in March.
Federal officials urged districts to use the funds to reopen for in-person education and to address both mental health and academic needs. Districts must use at least 20% of the aid to address learning loss.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education dedicated $35 million in stimulus aid to fund hundreds of new school counselors, mental health professionals, social workers and recreational therapists in public schools.
The agency also announced $14 million to pay for summer enrichment programs through 2023. Districts are leveraging their own funds to hire school counselors and support summer learning, as well.
“We need to get our kids back on track academically,” State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said in a May 3 news conference. “We need to support our young people who have been socially and emotionally disconnected due to the pandemic, quarantining and all kinds of unexpected turbulence and disruption this year.”
Sulphur received about $4 million in total stimulus funds to support its 1,400 students. The southeast Oklahoma district will use a portion of that money to hire three new reading specialists to ensure elementary and intermediate students catch up in literacy.
Even with a traditional five-day schedule of in-person learning, Holder said students frequently missed school because of quarantine or illness.
“We were full time, but we’re well aware that there were larger numbers of absences than a typical year,” Holder said. “There’s going to be some gaps there that we need to address.”
Harrah will invest in after-school programs, free tutoring, student remediation and initiatives focusing on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
Santa Fe South put its federal aid toward human capital. The charter district hired a new team of academic administrators who will handle teacher development, create in-house learning assessments and review student performance data.
Students in the charter network spent only two to four days in the classroom a week. Internal testing showed they didn’t progress at the pace of a typical school year, though results were better than expected, Brewster said.
Santa Fe South is doubling down on professional development to ensure students receive quality instruction when they return.
“For me, the money best spent has been in growing teachers, training teachers and equipping teachers,” Brewster said. “That’s what we’re going to do with the majority of federal dollars that we’re going to get.”
Stimulus dollars must be spent by 2024. Some districts, like Edmond Public Schools, are cautiously hiring new staff members while others, like Harrah, are reluctant to make new hires altogether with funds that eventually will run out.
Edmond received $32.9 million in total aid. The district budgeted to spend between $6 million and $9 million of it a year until it expires.
Superintendent Angela Mills Grunewald said Edmond is hiring new counselors and established summer learning programs that didn’t exist before COVID-19.
But with federal aid distributed by the number of impoverished students in a district, suburban schools received far less in comparison to high-poverty areas.
The Oklahoma City school district, which enrolls about 10,000 more students than Edmond, is still deciding how it will spend $255.4 million in stimulus money.
“It allows us to think outside the box, but a much smaller box we get to think outside of,” Grunewald said.
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.