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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Earlier this year in Owasso, school officials celebrated when the support of about 1,000 voters allowed the issuance of $11 million in bonds. But when it comes to reopening the district for in-person instruction, critics say the wishes of a far larger group of parents are being ignored.

That’s led parents to launch a recall effort targeting the district’s school board.

“Our representatives, our school board, they aren’t answering us,” said Jennifer Johnson, an Owasso mother of three children. “They’re not doing what the popular vote wants. They’re being really vague. So we decided, well, let’s see if we can get some new people in there.”

On Feb. 11, voters in the Owasso district decided the fate of two bond measures totaling $11.3 million. Both bond packages passed. One measure received 993 votes in favor of passage and the second received 1,004 votes in favor.

On the district’s Facebook page, school officials responded, “Thank you, Owasso! Unofficial results show that both propositions of our school bond have passed. Thank you for your continued support of our students, educators and schools!”

But today parents say district leaders care far less about what parents have to say about reopening the district for in-person instruction. A Facebook group, “Parents for Choice-Open Owasso Schools,” currently has more than 1,500 members. That alone far exceeds the number who supported $11 million in bonds in February, but data also shows as many as 80 percent of families in the district want in-person instruction as an option.

In the summer, Owasso officials said parents would be given the option of online or in-person instruction for students at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. The deadline for enrolling in the online option was Aug. 3.

At the July meeting of the Owasso School Board, Superintendent Amy Fichtner said, “If parents believe that learning from home is the best option, we’ll honor that. If they believe returning to school is the best option, we’ll honor that as the parent is the foremost authority in their child’s life.”

Many parents now view that as a broken promise, Johnson said.

That’s because on Aug. 4, a day after the deadline for enrolling in the school’s online program, district leaders abruptly informed parents, “Instruction for all grade levels will occur through our ‘Pivot to Home’ plan and students will not be in the classroom with their teachers during this time.”

According to the Tulsa World, only around 20 percent of all students had registered for virtual learning at Owasso prior to the Aug. 4 announcement.

School officials said the transition to online-only instruction was driven in part by weekly increases in COVID-19 spread that occurred from July 14 to Aug. 4, and was made “with the goal of protecting our students, staff and community, while also providing the best educational experience possible.”

As of Sept. 3, data posted by the Oklahoma Department of Health showed Owasso had 93 active cases of COVID-19 in the community, which represents about two-tenths of 1 percent of the town’s population. For every 395 people in Owasso, roughly one individual had COVID-19.

The district’s Aug. 4 message also promised that “Pivot to Home” online instruction “will look much different from last spring’s distance learning.”

However, the virtual option offered prior to Aug. 4 was provided through a third-party vendor, while the virtual option offered after Aug. 4 was through the district itself. The district-generated online program has proven to be of much lower quality, critics say.

“It’d be one thing if it was like, ‘You know, the kids are still getting something out of this and I’ll tough through it for my kids,’” Johnson said. “But it’s not even that. They’re not getting anything out of it. This is really causing quite a hardship on a lot of families here.”

Johnson also informally surveyed teachers in the district to learn what option they preferred.

“If they all wanted to do this ‘Pivot to Home’ and didn’t want to be in the class, that would make a difference,” she said.

But the teacher survey results were similar to the wishes expressed by parents. Of the teachers that responded, 26 percent preferred virtual learning, roughly two-thirds preferred in-person instruction and the remainder were fine with either option.

In the weeks since the district announced it would offer instruction only through online means, Johnson said numerous parents have emailed or called school board members and district leaders to get more details, including information on when in-person instruction can resume. In most instances, she said those parents “didn’t hear anything back,” and when responses were provided they were often broad, generic statements.

“No one was responding,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t get any answers. The two board members that answered just gave super-vague answers. ‘We’re trying to keep the kids safe,’ basically. Nothing else.”

She said the district’s policies have often contradicted the claim that in-person student gatherings are dangerous.

At the same time parents are told in-person instruction represents a health risk, “sports are still happening,” Johnson noted. The school board even voted to allow the football team to travel to Arkansas for a game in an area with one of the higher COVID-19 rates in Arkansas.

The Owasso district, like several others providing online-only instruction, is allowing the children of teachers to come to the physical school site for their “online” learning and receive aid from school support staff.

“We want our teachers to be able to work. We get that,” Johnson said. “However, what about all the other parents who can’t work right now because they’re having to stay home or try and work from home while helping their kids with their school? So that’s another hypocritical thing.”

“Parents for Choice-Open Owasso Schools” was launched soon after the district announced it was going fully online, and quickly “took off,” Johnson said.

“There are some parents who are really, really struggling with this,” Johnson said. “This is hard on a lot of families. We’ve had families who’ve already been affected by COVID. They had a job loss or reduced hours, and now they’re having to have even more reduced hours to stay home and help their kids because this ‘Pivot to Home’ is so impossible.”

Many families have reportedly opted to homeschool, move to another district that offers in-person instruction, enroll in one of the state’s full-time virtual charter schools that offers better service, or shift to private school.

Johnson said she knows of at least 64 children that have been unenrolled from the Owasso district, and said she would not be shocked if 10 percent of district students are ultimately shifted elsewhere.

According to Oklahoma State Department of Education records, Owasso had 9,782 students enrolled in 2019-2020.

Frustrated by lack of responsiveness from school officials, parents on the “Parents for Choice-Open Owasso Schools” Facebook page launched a petition effort to force a recall election for Owasso school board members. Signature collections are underway, and have received strong support, Johnson said.

Fichtner, the Owasso school superintendent, did not respond to an email asking what criteria the district will use to determine if or when in-person instruction will resume.

“All we wanted was a choice,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want to force anyone into school who didn’t want to be. We just wanted that choice back.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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