It was an evening of emotional expression Monday as the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education heard from teachers and others who objected to the return of students and teachers to in-person learning on a hybrid A/B plan.
But, the Board decided to move forward anyway although several members were in tears about the struggle to find a way amid an ice storm and the rapidly increasing pandemic numbers.
All students started the A/B schedule Tuesday with the “A” group being first up to enter their schools.
Pre-K and Kindergarten have been on the hybrid schedule since Oct. 20.
It was an evening of firsts with the Board meeting in person for the first time since the pandemic took hold at the end of March.
Also, it was the first Board meeting in the new administration building named after famous Oklahoma City Black activist and Civil Rights leader Clara Luper. The official name is the Clara Luper Center for Educational Services.
And so, it was fitting that about ten protesters were picketing outside on the sidewalk before the meeting started. The group then split between those speaking during public comments.
Out on the sidewalk only about ten feet away through floor-to-ceiling glass of the new meeting room at the Clara Luper Center for Educational Services about five protesters stood on the sidewalk holding signs.
People coming to board meetings to object to what the district is doing is not unusual but this time, under the pretex of social distancing, protesters were kept outside if they were carrying a sign.
It remains to be seen in the future if people will be allowed to pack the meeting room even post-pandemic as they have in the past at previous Board of Education meeting venues.
Carson Van der Linden, a teacher in OKCPS was out with the picketers holding a sign that said, “No disposable teachers.” It was a good summation of what protesters were saying about returning to in-person learning.
He said he was “standing up for other teachers who can’t really stand up for themselves right now.”
“I don’t feel like the district or the superintendent are really taking into account the seriousness of this disease,” Vanderlinden told Free Press.
He said that with the current wave of infections the stakes were higher for students and teachers.
“I do believe that they are treating teachers as somewhat disposable in a rush to open up the school system before we’re ready, before it’s healthy, before it’s safe.”
Several teachers spoke to the Board against reopening. And the red thread that ran through their comments was that returning now as the pandemic is spiking is dangerous to students, their families and teachers.
“I’ve been in the classroom now for one week, and I can guarantee you it’s not safe,” said Margaret “Hannah” Leon, a teacher at Esperanza Elementary School on the south side.
The challenges of teaching especially the youngest students in Pre-K and Kindergarten came home in her comments about teaching some of the youngest students and trying to keep social distancing in place.
“If you have a crying six-year-old, are you going to ask them to stay six feet away from you? There’s a part of this job that is nurturing,” she said.
Judith Huerta, a teacher at Taft Middle School, pleaded for the district to wait for the return out of fear for her students and family members. “I don’t want to hear about one of my students or family members dying from COVID that they caught at school.” Huerta was among the district’s Spanish Language support staff before working through the process of becoming a teacher.
Superintendent Sean McDaniel responded with a number of comments to the teachers who spoke Monday and to others who have objected to the return to the classroom.
He acknowledged the difficulty for everyone of every viewpoint to find a way through the difficult decisions about how to meet students’ needs for guidance and safety and protect everyone’s health during a pandemic.
“There’s not a universal right answer to this,” said McDaniel.
His position was that there has been abuse, sexual abuse, and hunger among the district’s students during the pandemic.
District 1 Board Member Charles Henry took issue with what he believes is an implication that black and brown people are abusing their children since the district is predominantly people of color.
After board member comments, Henry stood to leave and McDaniel asked him one more question about whether Henry was saying that he doesn’t believe there is abuse of children in the district.
Henry said he was not saying that. In response, McDaniel said, “I know for a fact that children are being abused.”
Some teachers in the district argued in response after the meeting is that they disagree with McDaniel and other leaders assuming that the hunger and abuse problems with students can be adequately addressed by their return to in-person instruction.
He said that he would respect teachers who “no longer trust us” after the decision.
“I would hope that as we disagree on coming back to school we can acknowledge that we all care about our students,” McDaniel said.
District 3 Board member Carrie Jacobs asked a series of questions about the availability of substitute teachers in the current circumstances and about other personnel including nurses.
Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown responded to most of her questions.
He said that substitutes were hard to find before the pandemic and now will be harder to secure.
When it came to nurses, Brown said that the OKC metro has had a “shortage of nurses” for years now making it a competitive market for the district to attain and retain qualified nurses.
Brown said that the district has been paying the highest wages of any district in order to keep qualified nurses on the staff and would continue to work hard to recruit nurses especially now.
Since some teachers have been threatening to quit over the order to return to in-person teaching both the Chair, Paula Lewis and McDaniel emphasized how important the district’s teachers are.
Lewis referred to teachers as “essential personnel” and “rock stars.” But, she said that many kids are suffering because of not being in the presence of school and teachers, in many cases the only source of stability in their lives.
“I see you and you are essential,” concluded Lewis.
Very close to the end of the meeting, as if to punctuate what had transpired, Lewis asked McDaniel, “Do you believe that students will be served best by returning to the hybrid model?” McDaniel gave the one-word answer, “yes.”
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