Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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With its school-board members facing a voter-recall effort, officials at Owasso Public Schools announced Friday that the school will reopen for in-person instruction on Sept. 17 and conceded that the district’s prior standards for reopening were “unrealistic.”

In July, Owasso officials announced that parents would have a choice between in-person or online-only instruction in the 2020-2021 school year. But on Aug. 4, officials abruptly changed course, announcing the school would go entirely virtual.

Officials cited rising COVID-19 rates as the justification for that shift, and indicated the decision was unlikely to be reversed until Tulsa County had fewer than 14.39 cases of COVID-19 population per 100,000 citizens, the threshold to transition from an “orange” level down to “yellow” on the Oklahoma Department of Health’s map of county COVID-19 risk, for at least two consecutive weeks.

“As we continue to monitor trends on a daily basis, it is becoming more and more apparent that the Yellow or Green tier may not occur for an extended period of time and that initial guideline we provided may now be unrealistic,” Owasso Superintendent Amy Fichtner said in a letter posted on the school’s website.

She said Owasso has “reached a point in the data and trends for Tulsa County and the Owasso community that is similar to where we were in mid-July, when our intention was that we would convene in our physical classrooms. Therefore, I want to inform you of our decision to reopen our physical school buildings to students beginning on Thursday, September 17.”

Data posted by the Oklahoma Department of Health on Sept. 3, the day before Fichtner announced plans to reopen school, showed Owasso had 93 active cases of COVID-19 in the community, which represented about two-tenths of 1 percent of the town’s population. For every 395 people in Owasso, roughly one individual had COVID-19.

Based on enrollment choices Owasso parents made during the summer, as many as 80 percent of families preferred in-person instruction rather than full-time virtual learning. Parents also said the district’s online platform was subpar and that going online-only was creating severe financial hardship for many families because parents were unable to both work and care for children during the daytime hours of online learning.

In a video posted to the district’s website and Facebook page, Fichtner said the school will continue to stress handwashing, mask wearing, and social distancing when in-person instruction resumes. Students and staff will be required to wear masks.

If a child is sick, she urged parents to keep those children at home, saying the students “will not be penalized academically. They will not be held back. They will not miss out academically.”

“As we return, we want to return for good,” Fichtner said. “But it will take the help of our entire community for this to be accomplished.”

A group of parents numbering more than 1,500 had launched an effort to force a recall election for Owasso school board members, who were accused of being unresponsive to parents’ needs and inquiries.

On the “Parents for Choice-Open Owasso Schools” Facebook page, many parents hailed the district’s announced reopening, posting messages that included the following:

  • “I should have taken a video when I told the kids. They were more excited to hear this than when they found out we were going to Disney world!!”
  • “I am literally in my car crying tears of joy!!!”
  • “… my family is so excited for this decision. It couldn’t come soon enough!!!”
  • “My kids and I have been dancing and smiling since we got the email!!!! WE AS PARENTS MADE A DIFFERENCE IN OUR COMMUNITY!!”
  • “I can't believe this! Such wonderful news! I want to SCREAM With happiness! It's time to CELEBRATE!”

“To say that parents and kids are excited about this news would be an understatement,” said Jennifer Johnson, an Owasso mother of three who is active in the recall effort. “We are all so grateful to have the choice back to do what's best for our kids!”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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