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Oklahoma Education
Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent Sean McDaniel addresses reporters in front of Hawthorne Elementary School on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 as the district brings pre-K and kindergarten students back to classrooms. (Megan Prather)

Oklahoma City Public Schools welcomed pre-K and kindergarten students back into buildings today on an A/B schedule, the first milestone in the district’s plan to bring all students back to in-person learning.

During a press conference held by district leaders in front of Hawthorne Elementary School this morning, OKCPS superintendent Sean McDaniel said the goal of getting students back in classes as quickly and safely as possible has been in the works since March.

OKCPS plans to move forward with bringing back first through 12th grades on Nov. 9 if county COVID-19 rates stay below the State Department of Education’s red alert level.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” McDaniel said. “We know that teachers and other employees and moms and dads are anxious. Our commitment has been and will continue to be that we’re going to do everything in our power to make this a safe experience for our kids and for our teachers and for everybody that’s inside of our building. We’ve been working for months with our community of parents, caregivers, principals and teachers to try to make that happen.”

Assistant superintendent of elementary education Jamie Polk said the decision to bring back the youngest learners first was deliberate.

“This foundation is so important in early childhood for our students to have a routine and procedure in order for them to be the early learners they need to be,” Polk said. 

McDaniel emphasized the importance of everyone in the district doing their part to minimize the spread of COVID-19. This includes parents ensuring that they’re encouraging habits such as mask wearing, social distancing and proper hand washing at home.

“We have to be our very best when it comes to cleaning buildings. It can’t just be another day. We need to be at our very best when it comes to monitoring kids and their mask wearing and their social distancing,” McDaniel said. “We need that partnership occurring daily so that we’re all in this together.”

McDaniel said one safety step being taken by the district is increasing the numbers of custodial staff in schools.

“It’s a matter of adding manpower so we can take care of the things that we know are important,” he said. “We’ve got plans in place, beginning today, to begin adding manpower to our schools to ensure that we’re taking care of our building when B group comes and A group leaves.”

COVID-19 concerns linger

Despite enhanced cleaning procedures, COVID concerns linger for some teachers and staff members. McDaniel said a teacher resigned on Monday.

“Yesterday we had a teacher walk into the building, check in her badge, her computer, her keys and say to her leader ‘I don’t like the direction here, I don’t like the way the district is moving along, I can’t do this,'” McDaniel said. “I’ve got to say fairly, that’s fair. We all look at our circumstances personally and say, ‘Can I do this?’ And in that instance we fully support that decision. She looked at the data and the information and the direction and said she can’t do this, and we support that.”

McDaniel said multiple data points, including SDE alert levels and information from the Oklahoma City County Health Department, will continue to be considered in making decisions for the district’s plan.

“As we get information in, we go into these conversations and make decisions about our next step,” McDaniel said. “Anytime we hit 50 (cases per 100,000 people) we’re shutting down. But beyond that, things could happen where we don’t hit the red and we may still shut things down.”

He also said that while it is likely that someone in the district will test positive for COVID at some point, the district has contact tracing and quarantine protocols in place.

“We expect this to go well. That’s not to say that I’m guaranteeing anybody that there’s not going to be a positive test, that somebody’s not going to get quarantined,” McDaniel said. “I’m going to be real honest with you, we believe that is likely. But we have plans in place to address those things that will happen. We believe we’re prepared.”

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Megan Prather began covering education for NonDoc in September 2020, with an emphasis on the impact of COVID-19. She graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2017 with a degree in mass communications. She has covered an array of topics for publications including the Oklahoma Gazette, the Duncan Banner and the Tinker Take Off.