6 minute read

Oklahoma City Public Schools will use a plan for the upcoming school year intended to provide maximum flexibility in a still highly-unpredictable pandemic.

This comes after the district was abruptly closed for in-person classes and activities by order of the Oklahoma State Board of Education in March once the coronavirus pandemic came to Oklahoma. Teachers scrambled to provide packets and online instruction for students who tried to complete their studies from home.

The plan this year is for the district to leverage technology to provide options upfront for parents and students as well as a smooth way to transition to all-virtual if the pandemic becomes worse in the fall and schools are ordered closed again.

Dr. Sean McDaniel, superintendent, acknowledged the newness and the unknowns of starting a school year under a world-wide pandemic that is still ravaging many parts of the U.S. with infections ticking upward at present.

“Despite the unrest, uncertainty, and difficult nature of our task, we are encouraged by the fact that we are in this together as a district, as a community, and as a city,” said McDaniel. “Together we must rise.”

Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown presented the plan for beginning school again August 10 with options for in-person and virtual learning but also planing to seamlessly shift to all-virtual learning if the pandemic causes school closures again. (The slide deck for the presentation with many details is down the page.)

Return to school plan

“We are operating with what we know now,” said Brown at the beginning of the presentation pointing to the many unknowns of the pandemic that continues to take lives and disrupt every aspect of life in the U.S.

“But, we are going to use this pandemic to change some things,” said Brown a little later in his presentation.

He said that with the unknowns of the pandemic he and the Return to School Taskforce developed the plan to provide flexibility for parents and students. But, also it will provide flexibility for the district to respond to demands of the pandemic if schools close again.

Brown laid out two basic parts of the plan.

In-person instruction

One is for students to come back to their schools “in a traditional format” August 10 and receive in-person instruction similar to years past except for safety precautions to try and prohibit spread of the coronavirus.

Teachers, and all other staff as well as visitors to the school buildings will be required to wear a mask. Students will be highly encouraged to wear a mask, but the committee so far is not requiring students to wear masks primarily because it could become a discipline issue about wearing a mask or not.

Board member Ruth Veales cautioned that she has already received a call from a teacher who was alarmed that all students were not going to be required to wear masks.

Board member Charles Henry asked about the challenges for students with hearing impairments who needed to see the lips and facial cues of their teacher to understand what was being said.

Brown and Henry discussed the possibility of using a face shield instead of a mask for classroom instruction.

Brown repeated throughout the presentation that the committee would have to continue to work with further developments and try to balance care for students with rules that might create disruptive discipline issues.

Virtual capability

The second large part of the plan, unlike any other year before, is for the district to provide technology for each student Pre-K through 12th grade.

Students in Pre-K through 2nd grade will receive iPads and 3rd grade through 12th grade will receive Chromebooks.

Students who don’t have connectivity available will be able to check out a hotspot that will provide Internet access.

John Marshall Mid-High has been using hotspots in the same way for several years now with success.

The district will use CARES Act funds to purchase the equipment and other infrastructure necessary to connect the students with the district and the Internet.

Brown explained that teachers will be oriented to using the technology even in the classroom so that students and teachers will be used to using the devices to access learning options and connect each other for instruction.

The effort will be to prepare and orient teachers and students to make the transition quickly to total online instruction if partial shut-down or complete shut-down of schools takes place in the school year.

Complete virtual instruction option

Parents and students who want a full virtual experience from the beginning where they can receive instruction at home will have that option, too.

However, those who choose to do that will not be trying to receive instruction from an OKCPS classroom teacher as was the case when the pandemic created many surprise contingencies in March through the end of last school year.

All-virtual students Grades 3rd through 12th will connect with Edgenuity, an online content management service that is already experienced at providing online content. (See their course offerings for Oklahoma below.)

That will free district classroom teachers to concentrate on the already-challenging teaching process in a pandemic.

The idea of having both in-person and virtual instruction has become a labor issue throughout the U.S. as districts go through their preparations for school to start up in August and September. Some districts are attempting to make their teachers prepare for the classroom and for online instruction both, essentially doing the work of two teachers.

Sports?

Less clear is just how sports will develop in a pandemic and so the the committee is still developing plans.

The committee is still considering how to configure sports safely for those receiving in-person instruction and how best to provide access for students receiving virtual instruction.

However, Brown did confirm to Board Member Mark Mann that they think it will be possible for the all-virtual students to be involved in sports.

See Brown’s full presentation slide deck below for more details.

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P2G update

Superintendent McDaniel gave an update on the Pathway to Greatness (P2G) plan which just completed its first school year in the strangest school year the district may have ever had.

Highlights included an increase in the utilization of facilities. Under-utilization of district classroom space meant that the district was paying for space that was not being paid for by the state because of a shrinking student population.

McDaniel reported that in the first year space utilization had increased from 66% to 80%. This was achieved by shifting student populations and closing some school buildings much to the consternation of some parents and teachers.

Despite its unpopularity, the plan did allow the district to reduce the costly unused capacity the district had and consolidate resources that would provide for full-time counselors, librarians, and assistant principals, all considered to be important for providing support structures for student learning.

McDaniel also pointed out the long-term value of clarifying verticals in the district where students in the first grade would know what middle school and high school they would end up in if they stayed in the district’s traditional schools.

He said there is deep value in brothers and sisters in a family being in the same vertical as they progress through the grades.

One big question mark about closing buildings in any urban district is what happens to those empty buildings. They have a large impact on the surrounding life and real estate values in the surrounding neighborhood.

McDaniel reported that of the 15 buildings that were not going to be used in the last school year, 14 had tenants mostly from agencies and community organizations and one had been sold and occupied by the purchaser. (The list is in McDaniel’s presentation deck below.)

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