State School Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said during an emergency meeting Monday recent confirmed cases showing community spread of the virus was the trigger for a state-wide shut down to begin on Tuesday.
The move was a sharp turnaround from last week’s press conference where Hofmeister said school closings would be a local district decision.
“This is a dynamic situation. It’s very fluid,” Hofmeister said.
All instructional and extra-curricular activities of schools are prohibited. Some administrative services and maintenance of schools will continue.
Hofmeister said the board may re-evaluate the circumstances near the end of its three-week period. The closure could be extended, and the next scheduled state board meeting is set for March 25.
“This, I believe, requires a statewide answer,” Hofmeister told the board. “We are a state system of public education, and we need to be operating together with a uniform approach and with a unified voice (…) We want to put safety first, and this is an important measure.”
The state board supported the proposal unanimously. The closure order does not apply to private schools because they are outside the state’s jurisdiction.
But Casady, a private school in Oklahoma City, announced on its website that it would also close campus until April 6. The school said it would implement an online learning program for students beginning March 26.
‘Flexibility will be in place’
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt supported the State Board of Education’s decision Monday. In a statement, Stitt said that although the closures will significantly impact families, the action is appropriate to further understanding of the virus’ impact and to protect students and staff.
Board member Estela Hernandez quizzed Hofmeister about the nutritional impact that closing schools would have on low-income students who depend upon school lunches.
Hofmeister said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided the Oklahoma State Department of Education waivers to allow schools to serve federally funded lunches off-site or for pickup by students’ families.
In a press conference following Monday’s board meeting, Hofmeister said details of the school lunch plan were still being worked out. She said the USDA waiver gave school districts the option to tailor their best method of delivery.
“There will be flexibility where districts will handle that differently,” Hofmeister said. “But that flexibility will be in place.”
She said two additional waiver requests are pending with the USDA and would extend the opportunity to schools not currently participating in the school lunch program.
Hofmeister said whether teachers and staff will receive paychecks during the closure will be a “district-by-district” decision, but it was a top priority for her department.
“We don’t want them to be concerned they will not be taken care of and planned for,” Hofmeister said. “We are actively working to do that.”
Meanwhile, Hofmeister said end-of-year testing for students in third through eighth grades and in high school is still scheduled. But the second-term superintendent said she would not hesitate to recommend that the board postpone testing if it becomes necessary.
“We are not going to ask children to come and be assessed under circumstances that will not be the right thing,” she said.
Hofmeister said proficiency testing and other issues related to the coronavirus pandemic will likely be addressed at future board meetings.
‘It’s fluid and dynamic’
State school officials also conducted a telephone conference call with more than 540 school district representatives on Friday. Another conference call is scheduled today to address questions about implementing the school closures.
When asked whether any school districts had been critical of the move to close schools, Hofmeister said COVID-19’s quickly changing circumstances had helped change minds.
“Concern? You would have to ask, what day?” Hofmeister said. “Everyone is assessing where they are, and we’re making decisions on the information we have and the science and recommendations of those experts that are looking at mathematical models.”
After the state board’s vote, Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel released a statement. The day prior, McDaniel had said OKCPS was delaying its decision on an extended closure until next week.
“Together, we are facing an unprecedented health crisis in our community. In our response to COVID-19, OKCPS and other districts must depend on the wisdom of our health experts and elected officials and lean on the resolve of our strong community,” McDaniel wrote. “This will now allow OKCPS and other districts to remain closely aligned as we finalize our response. Tomorrow morning, our board will come together to discuss next steps for OKCPS, and we look forward to sharing additional details with our families and staff in the coming days.”