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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — Monday, Oklahoma City Public Schools launched their first day of school, the first since 2019. The excitement that would have flowed freely among school teachers and staff was reserved, though, because of the recent surge of the D variant to COVID-19.

The challenge for school districts that are moving back to in-person learning is made more difficult by the Oklahoma Legislature.

Legislation was passed this year that prohibits both mask and vaccine mandates. The legislation was signed into law by Governor Kevin Stitt.

Eager kids and staff

The kids, staff, and teachers at Rockwood Elementary on the south side were visibly excited to be back in school, though, dangers or not.

Superintendent Sean McDaniel was there along with the principal, teachers and staff welcoming students back, some with backpacks almost bigger than they were.

“My heart is pounding 100 miles an hour,” McDaniel told Free Press. “I just love seeing these kids.”

He acknowledged that the excitement was measured in that the anxiety of the persistent threat of COVID continues to linger.

“So, we’re confident in the steps we’ve taken as a district, that we’re going to keep it safe.”

But, after a year of hearing about the trouble students, parents, and caregivers were having with distance learning, especially in the young age groups, McDaniel seemed ready to take any kind of school start in spite of the added disease dangers layered on top of the usual challenges of keeping school populations safe.

“You know, I want to just focus on day one, they get to be with their teachers and they get to be with each other. It’s just a very exciting day,” McDaniel said.

“Oh, it’s so exciting like this,” said Rockwood Principal Paula Pluess when media asked her how this first day of school felt.

“You don’t realize how much you missed that first day of school, smell that first day of school, look in your hallways in your classrooms, until you miss it like we did last year, when we didn’t have kids that first day.”

Food service distancing

With concerns still high about containing the spread of COVID and other diseases moving through the population, there is added pressure on the district’s food service as they serve meals where the possibility of spread is higher as students remove masks to eat.

Director of School Nutrition Services Shonia Hall talked to Free Press about their processes of keeping kids safe.

“Our administrators have worked to kind of spread out our students in a number of eating locations that are a little different than, you know, traditional school,” said Hall.

Students will eat breakfast in their classroom and some will eat lunch in their classroom or in different locations throughout their building so that there won’t be a large number of students, all in the cafeteria, as has been the case pre-COVID, said Hall.

The district provides USDA compliant meals with fruits, vegetables, a choice of entrees and milk.

As the food service in the largest in-person school district in the state, staff have become adept at shifting processes as the pandemic has forced change to meet the challenges.

Last year, meals were provided to students as they drove through their school’s parking lot and then as students came back on a limited in-person basis, the service had to adjust to both in-school meal delivery and delivery to students who were still doing remote learning on alternating days.

For several years, OKCPS has been the recipient of a federal grant that allows the district to declare all students to be enrolled in the free and reduced meal program normally given only to individual students whose caregivers meet the income threshold.

This is the first year that Moore Public Schools has joined the ranks of those districts who have high enough poverty levels in the student body to meet the requirements for the program.

Limited visitors

In normal times school principals have been vigilant about who is allowed around the student populations during the school day.

But, now that visitors have the same potential to bring COVID into the build as anyone else, the number of visitors in the building becomes an odds equation that principals are addressing.

“Just with our protocols that we had in place last year, when we had students come back to the building, we found that it was safer to make sure that we limited the number of visitors in the building,” Rockwood Principal Paula Pluess told the gathered press Monday before the first bell.

“So to keep everybody safe, I’m limiting the number of visitors in the building is definitely a protocol that we want to have in place,” said Pluess.

Because district staff could not be sure on the first day of school who was already enrolled and who wasn’t and whose parents had given clearance to speak to the press we were not able to get any comments from students.

Last Updated August 10, 2021, 2:25 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor