Here's What School Could Look Like For Oklahoma Students Next Fall

May 28, 2020

The coronavirus will change school next fall.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education has issued a series of guidelines for schools. But will we see a statewide shutdown of schools and shift to distance learning next fall like we did this spring?

“I would not anticipate that unless it is necessary for the governor to call another state of emergency,” State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said.

Local school boards will ultimately be the decision makers.

District leaders are scrambling to figure out how exactly to deal with the situation. And the summer  will be a critical time in  making those decisions. It’s impossible to predict the future. But it is possible to plan.

“We can be ready and we can use this time to prepare for multiple scenarios and then be focused on learning and identifying where those gaps are, as we do year after year for students in the ordinary operations and service of a school,” Hofmeister said.

Will there still be “distance learning” in the fall?

School buildings will be open and they will be filled with at least some students.

However, state officials aren’t ruling out distance learning in fall 2020. In fact, they’re  pretty much counting on it.

“OSDE encourages districts to plan for integration of schoolwide virtual learning days into school calendars for the 2020-21 school year given the expectation of short- or long-term disruptions to on-site instruction as a result of COVID-19,” according to guidance sent from the State Department of Education.

Distance learning works best when students have internet access, though. And more than 100,000 children in Oklahoma don’t have home web access. That’s a problem that the State Department is working to fix. 

In an April letter, Hofmeister asked Gov. Kevin Stitt to leverage some or all of $40 million in federal funding through the CARES Act on fixing the internet gap. 

“The governor and his team are working with OSDE, local school districts, and state legislators in order to ensure these dollars effectively serve all Oklahoma students during these unprecedented times,”Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey said in a written statement.  “No official decisions have been made on how the $39.8 million in emergency discretionary funds will be spent. However, we are evaluating numerous initiatives, including rural broadband, hotspot connectivity and virtual AP options for all schools.”

Lakey also pointed out that the $40 million only represents a fraction of funding that goes to schools. The CARES Act disburses $160.9 million for a direct common education grant through the State Department of Education for distribution to public school districts, and $150.7 million for direct higher education grants, to be distributed to in-state colleges and universities.

The State Department of Education has indicated districts that spend at least some of their CARES Act relief funds on fixing the internet gap in their community will be eligible for additional grants from the state.

What will the school calendar look like?

In a late May interview on Fox News, Stitt said the state was looking at a common start date across Oklahoma in early August.Hofmeister said that was an early idea but it has since been axed. Instead, local districts will determine when they can start. 

An early start date will likely be encouraged but not required. The Education Department  has laid out five things schools should consider when laying out their calendars.

Options include staggering start dates for grades, building in virtual days of instruction, starting school early, adding night classes or Saturday school, and taking more and longer breaks throughout the year. Further guidance is expected soon so schools can start planning.

How will students be kept safe?

The CDC has released a lengthy guidance for maintaining hygiene at schools.

The agency encourages small classrooms, masks for teachers and students whenever possible and teaching handwashing with soap and water for at least 30 seconds.

On a call with superintendents last week, state officials said they were working on securing PPE and other supplies for schools to use. 

What do schools do if they have a positive case of COVID-19?

If a positive case is detected in an Oklahoma school, the Department of Education  is recommending schools close immediately for the remainder of the day of detection. 

Sanitization in any place where the student might have been for 30 minutes is also encouraged and school leaders should consider closing for a longer period of time.. Teachers or students who have tested positive for coronavirus are advised to stay home.

What about assessments?

It’s spring tradition in Oklahoma to have a bevy of assessment tests.

Because of coronavirus, the state received a waiver from its federally mandated assessments in spring 2020. 

However, barring a major catastrophe, another waiver is unlikely because districts are  required to do the testing under a  federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is tied to congressional funding for districts. School officials are planning to have assessments next  spring.