The start of a school year generally brings excitement, for students moving to their next grade and for teachers eager to guide a classroom of new faces. This new school year has a distinctly different feel, one brimming with anxiety and uncertainty, due to COVID-19.
In some places, such as Oklahoma City, public school students, teachers and staff will not begin the year until Aug. 31, three weeks later than planned, to give the district more time to prepare for what will be online-only instruction for the first nine weeks.
“Make no mistake, the best education is when we have teachers and students together face to face,” Superintendent Sean McDaniel said recently. “And we want to get there as quickly as we can. But we want to be safe and thoughtful about it.”
Schools across Oklahoma and the country closed their doors in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Classwork was conducted virtually, a tremendous challenge on such short notice for all involved — students, teachers and parents.
Indeed, a survey of Oklahoma schools conducted in May by the state Department of Education found nearly 75% of respondents said they struggled with distance learning, StateImpact Oklahoma reported. About half of the districts said they did not have the tools needed to help with remote learning; half didn’t have a content or learning management system.
In addition, the survey found, almost one-fourth of students could not access online tools that were in place.
For this school year, the Oklahoma City district is among a number of large districts providing all of its roughly 35,000 students with a mobile device, and giving hotspots to those families that do not have internet service. The state also has ordered 50,000 hot spots for use in districts across the state; more such investment is needed.
The “summer slide” that students experience during summer vacation is a greater concern than usual this year, due to the way last school year ended. A study of 477 U.S. school districts, conducted by the Washington, state-based Center for Reinventing Education, found that “only one in three districts expected teachers to provide remote instruction and monitor students’ academic engagement,” USA Today reported in June.