Norman Public Schools
Teachers for Norman Public Schools gathered outside of the NPS Board of Education meeting Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, to express concern about how Norman High School is handling COVID-19. (Megan Prather)

A letter from 88 anonymous teachers and staff members at Norman High School expressing safety concerns owing to COVID-19 was released Friday, and at Monday night’s Norman Public Schools Board of Education meeting, teachers reiterated those concerns.

Educators, parents and students gathered in front of the Norman Public Schools administration building Monday evening with signs urging the school board to extend online learning, but the board took no action on in-person learning during the meeting.

NPS’ elementary schools returned to in-person classes Aug. 31 while middle and high schools returned Sept. 8. The district resumed online-only instruction Monday prior to the board meeting.

Teachers: ‘Do the right thing’

The teachers’ letter (embedded below) claimed that four days after returning to in-person instruction, one-third of the high school’s staff was in quarantine and expressed concerns over the ability to properly contact trace due to quickly increasing positive cases, a lack of substitute teachers and custodial staff, shifting policies by the district and the failure to include any classroom teachers on the “Back-to-School Task Force.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 33 new cases of COVID-19 in Norman on Monday. Norman Public Schools returned to virtual learning this week owing to Cleveland County being listed at a ‘moderate risk’ level for COVID transmission.

During the meeting, Jon Otto, a history teacher at Norman High School, read a statement on behalf of his colleague Jillian O’Conner.

“At the beginning of September, I expressed concerns to my principal and other board members about returning to in-person instruction, specifically clarification for what safety protocols would look like in terms of social distancing guidelines, etc.,” Otto read from the statement. “I was told the administration was hopeful no one would get COVID and that creative solutions would be put into place to ensure that we were following CDC guidelines. I had no other option but to trust their plans even while hesitant to return to in-person instruction.”

Otto continued to read from the statement that on Sept. 10, O’Conner was informed that she had been exposed to somebody who tested positive. But since she wasn’t within six-feet of that person, she was not considered a close contact and was told  that she was safe to return to school the next day. A rapid test on Saturday showed that she was negative for the novel coronavirus, but while taking a sick day on Monday in order to get another test, she was informed that she had been exposed to a second person who had tested positive for COVID. That night, O’Conner received results from her second COVID test that she was positive for the virus.

“I asked if I needed to tell students and parents about my status. I was told not to notify them in order to not cause unneeded stress and that they would handle the communication,” Otto read. “It’s irresponsible to keep going on like this. I now ask the board to do the right thing and make the call that is best for everyone: to extend virtual instruction at the secondary level until it is safe for everyone.”

Parents in support of in-person learning

Some parents showed up to the meeting to urge the school board to return once again to in-person instruction.

Kendra Streeter has a fourth and a sixth grader that were attending Norman Public Schools, however she has transferred one of her children to a different school in Cleveland County owing to the district’s switch back to online instruction.

“They’re not getting what they need,” Streeter said. “They’re not getting what they deserve.”

According to a COVID report from Norman Public Schools, between Sept. 12 and Sept. 18 Norman High School had seven new positive cases of COVID among staff. An additional 29 staff members were in quarantine, while 13 new positive cases were identified in students. More than 130 students were in quarantine.

“When we have a positive confirmed case — that has to be a case confirmed to the district — the contact tracing process begins,” said Alesha Leemaster, executive director of communications and community relations for Norman Public Schools. “Our school health aids work with the State Department of Health on the contact tracing process. They start to determine who would be in close contact with that individual, and they first notify those people. So you’ll get a personal call from someone with the health department or the school district. Then they follow up with a letter with specific CDC guidelines and when they can return to school. After that process is complete the entire school is notified that there was a positive case in the building. The entire school is notified — students, staff and parents.”

Leemaster also said that while no classroom teachers were included on the NPS Back to School Task Force, a representative from the teachers’ union on the task force, as well as a high school librarian.

A subsequent meeting with administration is planned to be held sometime this week to determine how Norman Public Schools will move forward.

“We shared with parents and families today that the State Department of Education has modified its guidance, and we’re looking at that closely to determine if any changes need to be made to our plan and our decision model on whether or not to offer in-person instruction,” Leemaster said. “When that occurs and how those decisions are made.”

Teacher letter to Norman Public Schools board

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