Oklahoma City Public Schools
A sign protesting what some see as a premature return to in-person classes hangs in Memorial Park in Oklahoma City on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (Megan Prather)

At a meeting on Monday night, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education were met with concerns from teachers regarding the district’s return to in-person learning.

OKCPS welcomed pre-K and kindergarten students back to in-person classes on an A/B schedule on Oct. 20. The district plans to bring back 1st through 12th grades, which are currently completely virtual, to the classroom on an A/B schedule on Tuesday, Nov. 10, and then start next semester on an A/B schedule as well.

OKCPS follows the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s alert levels when making district decisions regarding COVID.

Monday’s meeting, however, made clear that some teachers and community members are worried the district is returning to in-person learning too soon. Some have also expressed frustration at what they say is a lack of transparency regarding COVID-related decisions.
But as the district’s students prepare to return to school amid record-high COVID-19 numbers in Oklahoma, OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel reiterated that getting students back into schools as quickly and safely as possible has been a goal for the district since July. He also emphasized that the virus is not the only issue to consider when making decisions for students’ wellbeing. 

‘I can guarantee you it’s not safe’

Nine teachers, from schools throughout the OKCPS district, urged the board to reconsider its plan during the public comment section of the meeting.

“I’ve been in the classroom now for one week, and I can guarantee you it’s not safe,” Esperanza Elementary School teacher Hannah Leon said. “I don’t understand why we invested so much money in virtual learning only to, what feels like, throw it in the trash. I think it was working. I understand there was a learning curve, but we were doing it. When lives are at stake, convenience is not the answer. ”

Amanda Girdler, a teacher at Taft Middle School, expressed similar concerns about returning to the classroom in-person.

“I can’t remain silent just because it’s comfortable,” Girdler said during the meeting. “We are at significantly more cases and significantly less ICU bed availability in Oklahoma City than we were in August when we decided to return to school in a virtual capacity.”

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the state currently has 20,129 active COVID-19 cases.

“It feels like the love of our kids is being taken advantage of again and again,” Girdler said. “How can we possibly justify even the chance of setting our kids up for more trauma than they’ve already experienced by putting them in the position to lose a classmate, parent, grandparent or teacher? I love this work, I love this community, I want to be here in this district. But currently I feel completely uncared for and unheard, along with so many of my colleagues.”

Oklahoma City Public Schools
The Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education met for their board meeting on Monday, Nov. 9. (Screenshot)

‘There is not a universal right answer to this’

In response to the teachers’ comments, OKCPS superintendent Sean McDaniel said that there is not one perfect answer to the problem of how to handle school during the COVID-19 pandemic and that he appreciated those taking a respectful approach to disagreement.

“I’m not attempting in any way to dissuade anybody from a position that you or others have taken. Your position is a fair position,” McDaniel said. “What I’m going to do is convey information.”

McDaniel said that one piece of information the district has looked at is how children are faring in a completely virtual classroom setting. He stated the issues these students face include food insecurity, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect.

“I believe that the information we have about the life of a student in a virtual setting is important,” McDaniel said. “There is research out there that tells us that if a school-aged child is being sexually abused once or twice per week, that’s a pre-pandemic number, post-pandemic that child may be subject to sexual abuse at twice the rate.”

McDaniel also said that while it’s not clear whether there is a volume increase in physical abuse because of the pandemic, research has shown that the intensity and violence of abuse has increased.

“There is not a universal right answer to this,” McDaniel said. “We believe right now, bringing our kids back, getting them into school is important.”

‘We will do a much better job of communicating’

During the meeting, McDaniel said the district’s biggest concerns are the general exposure risks and having enough PPE for their school sites.

“Today we were finalizing (PPE) distribution to our schools. We believe tomorrow, as our teachers receive the kids back, we will have adequate PPE to get ourselves started,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel also reiterated the district’s disinfection procedures and the protocols for if a student tests positive for COVID-19, which include immediately beginning the isolation process and contact tracing.

“Our operations department has changed scheduling,” he added. “We will be moving through schools throughout the district and cleaning high touch-point areas.”

There is also a disinfecting misting procedure for hallways and classrooms, which is carried out periodically and when someone tests positive at a school site.

“We will do a much better job of communicating all of these protocols and processes,” McDaniel said. “I would hope that as we disagree on whether or not to bring kids back to school, there’s understanding that we’re looking at everyone. We’re looking at the lives of kids that are being impacted in a virtual setting. We do care about kids and we do care about the adults in this district.

Oklahoma City Public Schools
A group of community members gathered at Memorial Park in Oklahoma City on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 to rally for transparency from OKCPS regarding decisions made in light of COVID-19. Megan Prather)

‘We’re trying to represent as broad a coalition of ideas as possible’

Community members concerned about the return to in-person classes, including parents and teachers, gathered at Memorial Park in Oklahoma City on Saturday, Nov. 7 to call for transparency from OKCPS regarding COVID-19 and to show solidarity with teachers who may be concerned about the district’s return to in-person learning.

“We’re trying to represent as broad a coalition of ideas as possible,” OKCPS teacher Meagan Kenner said. “We understand that not everyone’s concerns are the same, but the fact of the matter is none of our concerns were taken into consideration as OKCPS has moved forward in this process.”

Kenner said the group wants to ensure that teacher, parent and student surveys are used to provide a clear picture of how community members want to move forward.

“What is particularly frustrating is the last survey was done at the end of August and things have changed since then,” Kenner said. “The spread of COVID-19 has grown exponentially and we’re no longer in the same place at the end of August that we are now. The district needs to be responsive to that.”

Kenner said they also want transparency from OKCPS.

“Whatever form that takes, we want the district to be open with its community members about what data points they’re using to make these decisions and what’s actually happening on the ground in the school sites,” Kenner said.

Board approves pay raises

During Monday night’s meeting the board unanimously approved a two percent raise for all qualified professional technical staff on schedule 900-913 retroactive to the first day of contract on or after July 1, 2020.

The board also approved a tentative agreement with the Oklahoma City Building Administrators to advance all qualified staff by one step. Base pay for assistant principals will be increased by $700 and base pay for principals will be increased by $550.