School is about to be out for summer.
Spring 2020 was a semester like no other after Oklahoma schools switched to a distance learning environment to combat the spread of COVID-19.
But another semester like this one is unlikely next year. Earlier this week, the State Department of Education laid out several options for school calendars that should prevent massive closures and a statewide shift to distance learning.
Those 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.
StateImpact’s Robby Korth spoke with Oklahoma State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister – the state’s highest education official – about this semester and what school could look like next fall.
Robby Korth, StateImpact education reporter: School is winding down, how do you feel the transition went to distance learning?
Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma State Superintendent for Public Instruction: Well, that, of course, was just an emergency stop-gap during a time of trying to reduce risk and keep people safe. But we know that there were very pronounced gaps in access to Internet that need to be overcome as we prepare for the fall and the possibility for intermittent use of distance learning in the future, responding to the need for a quarantine, for example, possibly. We just want to be prepared for what’s going to common. It’s going to take a heavy lift to close that divide, that digital divide.
Korth: So how will how will that, you know, the knowledge of that digital divide inform, what happens next fall? Because we might have some distance learning then, too.
Hofmeister: That’s right. So what we have done since then is to, again, resurvey our schools, and ask them questions about how did it go for you? What are some of the changes that need to be made? And gathering that information back is key to making decisions on how we invest moving forward. Though, I would say that universally, there is a need and desire among educators, school district leaders and myself, to get that those families and their students digitally connected with Internet support at home. And this will allow them to be able to respond in a way that’s least disruptive for students, if they’re able to go into a quarantine situation at home for a small period of time.
Korth: What do you want to see school districts do this summer?
Hofmeister: I want to see our school districts working through a plan to be ready for the fall and in the summer if there is the opportunity with funding because many schools used to have summer school and they would do that in a broad way, but include transportation, meals, et cetera, that had to be cut back as we saw the budget, responding to the economic downturn in 2016-17. I think we were going to see that again as we are experiencing those cuts. But there are some that are looking to a virtual platform for the summer, particularly for older students with credit recovery, trying to keep them on track to be prepared to graduate on time. And then there are others who are considering a way to work with some of their struggling readers in very small groups with either face to face connection in schools or in some communities. They just feel more comfortable doing that virtually still.
Korth: Governor Stitt made some news, last week when he sort of said on Fox News that you all were considering a common start date and it would maybe be a little early earlier than in the past. Is that something you’re still considering? What are you looking for as far as when school should start next fall?
Hofmeister: Yeah, well, that was part of an early discussion that that did occur, but it was just preliminary discussion among superintendents thinking about what are they interested in doing. I think you will see communities starting around the same time and the planning is going to occur often within the neighboring districts as they are working together. And that makes sense, too, because communities are impacted very differently. So let’s pull out an example. Guymon public schools right now, they have a very different situation occurring with the path of the virus than what we are seeing in other parts of the state. So their response is going to be different as well. But the goal, though, was to have an adaptive plan that is a framework of decisions that the State Department is going to take the lead on providing, and then districts will be able to be a little bit more uniform in the way they respond to scenarios as they present in the course of the school year. But they’ll be ready with multiple calendars. So that they can shift to the right response at the right time. As the year progresses.
Korth: When will you have those frameworks done and when should school districts sort of decide which ones they’re going to be using?
Hofmeister: Well, we will have the initial draft presented out publicly to schools and to the public in the month of May. We hope to have that even before Memorial Day. And yet that is going to be like a living framework where we will update that as new questions arise that that need to be further developed in a more general answer across the state and districts will use this to help them as they respond. But the decisions are typically all going to be local. Yet the school superintendents do want to follow the evidence and understand what the latest in the science and evidence based on what we see in other countries, in other states, as others have returned to school while we were out in the spring and we’re going to learn from that and there’ll be much more data to rely on when the school year is approaching. I would say that districts are determining right now their first plan, a plan A and how they will open in the fall, but they will be ready to shift to Plan B, even if it’s just temporary or it may only involve one of their school sites if they are a district with many schools. And so I think you will see a little bit more of a fine-tuned response, instead of a statewide uniform decision around how we respond to the path of the virus.
Korth: So basically, what happened this spring probably won’t happen again in the fall.
Hofmeister: I would not anticipate that unless it is necessary for the governor to call another state of emergency.
Korth: We can’t know for sure. Right?
Hofmeister: We can’t. But 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. But we’re focusing also not just on academics, but on the whole child. This is also about child nutrition. It’s about keeping students engaged. And we know that there are need for mental health support. And that is not something that’s unique to a pandemic. That’s something that Oklahoma has identified, that students are struggling. And we are going to invest in a way that is mindful of the whole child, not just one dimension.