Education

Oklahoma public schools to go online

March 25, 2020

Ray Carter

While public school buildings will remain closed to students, the system will shift to educating children online and through other distance-learning methods under an order approved by the Oklahoma State Board of Education.

“This order is the beginning of distance learning statewide so that learning can continue,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

A prior board order required closure of all public schools and cessation of all learning activities in public schools from March 17 to April 6, including virtual charter schools that operate entirely online.

The new order will now require all schools to provide distance learning to students.

Board member Estela Hernandez noted some schools, particularly the state’s charter schools and virtual charter schools, are especially prepared to provide distance learning, and stressed that the new order allows them to reconvene.

“As of April 5, in this order, once they submit that assurance document, they’re able to start immediately,” Hernandez said.

Hofmeister noted connectivity will be a challenge for some students and certain districts, but the state would be providing resources to help address that problem. Some federal funding may be used for that need thanks to waivers. The Oklahoma State Department of Education may also partner with OETA, the state’s public-broadcasting system, to deliver some content. And many private vendors have created low-cost or free options for distance learning.

The superintendent and board members indicated some schools wanted to either delay action on online learning or cease operations altogether.

“I have a number of emails and phone calls and messages about ‘Can’t we wait a few weeks to decide if this is something that needs to be considered?’” Hofmeister said. “The answer is no. We really can’t. Districts can’t stand up that kind of robust, meaningful program, unless we take this time right now for them to engage in that, so that there will be a meaningful number of weeks to deliver that service and provide that. It isn’t possible for districts to flip a switch and shift into that kind of delivery of education without advance notice.”

“I too—like all the other board members, I think—have gotten a lot of feedback,” said board member Jennifer Monies. “It’s like, ‘Why do we have to do this now?’ And my answer has been we have to give districts the maximum amount of time to think through and innovate, and think through how they can potentially reach every single one of their students.”

More than 200 districts already provide some form of virtual learning for students that can be expanded during this school year, officials noted.

Districts will be encouraged to continue the current school year at least until the May 8-16 time frame.

“This also makes it very clear that we do not expect a district to simply say, ‘Well, this is too much for us to consider and we’re going to simply say we are done,’” Hofmeister said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Bart Banfield, superintendent of EPIC Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual school, welcomed the opportunity to reopen in a message posted online on March 20.

“This is an uncertain and anxious time for all Americans right now and the best medicine for our children is as much normalcy and routine that we can provide them,” Banfield wrote. “We also do not want this crisis to affect the quality of your child’s educational outcomes. That is why we are very pleased by the department’s decision to allow us to resume our school operations. We are uniquely situated to provide a high-quality education to your child with minimal disruption amid this pandemic.”

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist posted a message online saying, “Even as we face this unprecedented challenge, know that your child’s learning WILL continue this school year. Teaching and learning will look different over the next six weeks, but our teachers and school leaders will do all that they can to help students stay on track academically.”

Some questioned the wisdom of keeping all physical school sites closed and other government actions that have shut down much business activity. Prior to the board meeting, the 1889 Institute, an Oklahoma think tank, issued a statement calling the move a “gross overreaction to the coronavirus situation.”

“Even in the best of times and circumstances, suddenly shifting every student in the state from traditional classrooms to online distance learning will have negative educational consequences,” said Byron Schlomach, 1889 Institute director. “This in addition to the economic burden on two-earner families forced to completely reorder their lives with schools closed.”

Officials at the institute argued the state should reopen schools and that only “truly vulnerable students and staff should stay home,” although they stressed that officials should continue to take sanitation precautions and practice social distancing.

The institute noted Dr. David L. Katz, a specialist in preventive medicine and public health, has argued current government actions may create worse outcomes than the COVID-19/coronavirus itself. Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center and professor of medicine, biomedical data science, statistics, and epidemiology and population health of Stanford University, has similarly said the government response to COVID-19 may be “a fiasco in the making.”

“No children less than 10 years old have been documented to have died from Covid-19,” Schlomach said. “Yet, the response on the part of local and national leaders has been as if every individual is at mortal risk and grossly disproportionate to the danger.”

Members of the Oklahoma State Board of Education acknowledged that the shift to online learning comes with challenges for many families.

“I know that it’s going to be incredibly hard on parents from all different walks of life, whether they’re having to work from home or they’re having to work outside the home and having to figure out how to educate their students at the same time,” Monies said. “I know that the weight of this decision definitely does not go unnoticed by this board. But given the emphasis and need to protect our students’ and staffs’ health, I feel like that we have to do what we can to move online and try to get education to students as best we can.”

“Obviously, this is not an easy choice,” said board member Brian Bobek.

Hofmeister noted some projections suggest the current government restrictions on group gatherings and personal interaction could extend much longer than a month.

“We have to think in some ways the steps we are taking right now may be a dry run for what may come,” Hofmeister said.

She said the COVID-19/coronavirus event may ultimately incentivize more rapid modernization of Oklahoma education, including greater individualized learning and blended models that combine online learning with in-person instruction.

That was a view shared by other board members.

“I agree that if there is a silver lining in any of this, it will force conversations of, ‘How does education need to look different and how can we make sure that every kid in Oklahoma has the ability to access the same quality education as every other student in the state?’” Monies said. “I think those are going to be ongoing discussions as we come out of this.”

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