Independent Journalist

Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.

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Not long ago, Kay Richardson Gibson took her granddaughter out for a pleasant lunch and then dropped her off to meet friends at Norman’s Sooner Mall.

If it weren’t for Covid-19, instead of going shopping, Gibson’s granddaughter would have been sitting in her eighth-grade classroom, beginning her final year of middle school. Instead, like Norman’s other K-12 students and parents, she’s caught in the middle of a confusing, ever-changing mixture of on-site, virtual, and “blended” classes. It’s been frustrating and demoralizing for all.

“(My granddaughter) can’t go to school every day, but she can go to lunch and to the mall. How’s that for learning? It doesn’t make any sense!” Gibson said. “Her mom had to quit her job because she also has a fourth-grader. My son and daughter-in-law are seriously thinking of pulling their children from Norman schools. My other son’s children go to Community Christian School, which is also in Norman. They haven’t missed any school or school activities, and they are doing just fine!”

Initially, Norman Public Schools (NPS) offered parents a back-to-school choice of on-site, virtual, or “blended” curriculum for K-12 students. In mid-August, the decision was abruptly made to start the year with virtual classes only. After only a couple of weeks the guidelines changed again. The district now has its elementary students in class full time with an option to study virtually from home. Middle and high school students have the option of an “alternate” learning schedule where they attend school for two days a week. The remainder of instruction is handled online.

NPS officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

NPS follows the Oklahoma Department of Health’s Covid-19 Alert System as a guideline for making decisions, as do most metro-area public school districts. The NPS website notes that the state’s alert system is updated each Friday. Once the update is made, the district then confirms the following week’s in-person instructional status, based on current Covid-19 statistics.

This back-and-forth has not been received well by many Norman parents. Gibson’s frustration is echoed by others who are upset not just by the patchwork of options, but also by technological glitches and a slow response time that leaves students and parents struggling at home.

“Why was NPS so unprepared for virtual learning across the district when they’ve had since Spring Break in March to start developing plans?”
—Chris Bray

“I feel that NPS has been continually reactive, rather than proactive, concerning back-to-school protocols,” said Chris Bray, whose three children attend different Norman schools. “Norman parents were given three options for back to school (virtual, on-site, and blended), and then had two of those taken away at what felt like the last minute. My perception from both Facebook friends and directly talking with others in my neighborhood is that NPS is making decisions based on the University of Oklahoma’s medical input and the Oklahoma state Covid guidance. Which is not bad, but I don’t feel parents are put at the forefront of their decision-making process.”

Norman resident Ryan Grate agrees. “The amount of stress this is putting on parents who have children in school and who are also working is incredible,” he said. “I am at work 8-5. I am constantly texting/calling my kids, walking them through classwork, then when I get home, we grab something easy to eat and do the rest of the classwork that they couldn’t figure out on their own. Then about 8-ish, we finally say ‘Let’s put this away.’ Now let’s not forget live classes start around 9 a.m., so that’s about 12 hours a day these kids are trying to learn something the teacher has posted a video about.”

“Both of my older children want to be at school, as they haven’t seen most of their friends for five months,” Bray said. “However, their instructors are not online for the full class period during their assigned schedule. My children are getting 10 minutes of a teacher’s time during their 60 minutes of virtual class. That’s unacceptable.”

Bray added that computer issues and lack of training made it impossible for his youngest child to virtually attend classes for the first several days of the new semester.

“She had practically zero training on Canvas (the NPS curriculum provider) for virtual school,” he said. “She is behind on her assignments, due to these computer issues, and we still have unresolved issues dating back to Aug. 14 that have not been fixed. NPS is overwhelmed with technology/computer issues and doesn’t have the staff to fix things in a timely manner. My 11-year-old was in tears about not understanding her assignments and Canvas overall. We did our best to work around the technological issues that persisted for weeks prior to being fixed. We are considering moving her to Epic (Charter School) if things don’t improve.”

“I don’t feel that the schools are upholding their end of the bargain that public education is supposed to provide.”
—Denise Anderson

“I have a very low opinion of how NPS and the state superintendent of education Joy Hofmeister have treated our children during this ‘pandemic,’” said Austin Ball, who has been supervising the virtual education of his children, who are first- and second-graders, plus his first-grade nephew. Ball said that technology and scheduling both were huge obstacles.

“The Seesaw App and system they are using for virtual learning are not user-friendly,” he said. “So even though I had two kids in first grade, they were in separate classes, and the teachers each had very different levels of understanding of this new system and utilized it in different ways, so that actually made it more confusing overall.”

All three children are now back in the classroom, and the difference in their attitude and academic progress is huge, he said.

“Why was NPS so unprepared for virtual learning across the district when they’ve had since Spring Break in March to start developing plans?” Bray asked. “If they were ready to offer virtual learning, based on parents’ requests for the 2020-2021 school year, why didn’t that easily translate into moving the entire district to virtual learning?”

Denise Anderson, whose two daughters are enrolled at Norman North High School, agreed.

“I think they were woefully unprepared given that they had the entire summer to have contingency plans in place,” she said. “The last-minute pushback to start school and deciding to go only virtual at first were unnecessarily hurried. I do think they’ve been responsive to parents and are doing their best, but I don’t believe virtual for everyone was necessary and should not have been pushed at the last minute. They had options for those who did not want to send their kids to school, so why force everyone to stay home? If masks work as well as they say, why can’t the schools open safely?

“Just like everything else with Covid, it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Rules to keep everyone at home, but then certain situations are exempt. We’re magically safe at Wal-Mart, but not at school?”

Norman parents also expressed serious concerns about the toll that the current pandemic regulations have taken on their children’s mental health.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom, so I’m not affected in many of the usual ways, but my son had problems with depression these last months,” said Cheryl F., who declined to give her full name. “There’s been a constant worry that the lack of the social aspects of school will pull him back into it. He’s strong and doing all right, but it has definitely worn on him.”

Her son, who started ninth grade at Norman North this semester, literally “jumped for joy” when he found out that on-site classes would be held two days a week, she added.

“Virtual learning is a terrible situation for kids,” Anderson said. “Mine are older, but it’s still tough for them to stay on task and keep up with their workload. The school has it set up so that they have quite a bit of time to complete their work, but they get very little in the way of ‘instruction’; they spend a lot of time teaching themselves the material and then completing the assignments. I’m not criticizing the teachers here—it’s a bad situation for everyone and I do think they’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got. But socially, it’s been a bit of a disaster, when you take into account that they haven’t been in a classroom since March, and that everything outside of school is basically shut down, my kids and everyone else’s kids are suffering substantially. I don’t know how it will be going back for only two days a week, but it’s better than what they’re getting now. We moved back to Norman two years ago, and the schools were one of the reasons we were so determined to move back into the district. Now, if I could transfer them to a different district right now that was fully in class, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

Another point made by parents is that virtual learning doesn’t give children the opportunity to appropriately make the transition from elementary to middle, and from middle to high school.

“Why were 6th graders, including mine, not given the chance to see their new school, with distancing and sanitation protocols in place, to just begin to understand the difference between elementary and middle school?” Bray asked. “My family is blessed that my wife can stay home and help out our youngest. However, even she was frustrated with the lack of preparation for sixth-graders as they moved into an entirely different world of six teachers, six different classes, six different sets of rules, and the huge transition that happens from elementary to middle school. Instead of helping students become familiar, every school was shuttered and made to feel that if a single person from the community walked in, it would erupt into a Covid death trap.”

Another issue parents touched on is the fact that after-school care is available for parents who cannot work from home, yet students cannot attend on-site classes full time.

“I think it’s an issue that NPS still wants to provide in-person after-school care, but won’t have in-person education,” Bray said. “Granted, elementary school students went back to on-site education, but it’s like the district wants to have their cake and eat it too. It’s hard to understand justifying virtual learning and then allowing in-person after care at the same time.”

In addition to juggling the additional burdens of homeschooling, parents also noted that they’re still paying taxes to support a basic level of public education that their children are not receiving at the moment.

“Safety is important, and I know the people making these decisions are in a no-win situation,” Anderson said. “It’s a big burden to be responsible for the health of children and teachers. But it’s also a requirement to provide an education to my children, and I feel that they are not getting adequate instruction and access to resources that our tax dollars pay for. We have a quiet home and a reliable internet, and my kids are old enough to fend for themselves. I can’t imagine what this experience has been like for those in a more difficult situation. I don’t feel that the schools are upholding their end of the bargain that public education is supposed to provide.”

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