JENNINGS — The start of school is still weeks away in many urban and suburban districts, but children in rural Oklahoma have already begun their return.
They are the first public school students back in classrooms since state education officials ordered every school closed in March when the COVID-19 pandemic struck — and at least one rural district has already had to contend with a confirmed employee case.
“To be able to see their smiles — and the excitement on their faces — it definitely put a smile on our faces,” said Derrick Meador, superintendent of Jennings Public Schools, about 40 miles west of Tulsa and 10 miles west of Keystone Lake.
“We have worked really hard since March — harder than I’ve ever worked — to prepare for today.”
That district’s academic year began without a hitch on Wednesday.
Only about 20% of its 215 prekindergarten through eighth-grade students enrolled for a traditional school setting, but another 60% elected for a blended learning model.
That allows them to attend in-person classes and, if or when public health concerns arise, to transition to computer-based distance learning at home.
“They just wanted the flexibility to be home without penalty if something happens,” Meador said. “We thought it was important when we were putting our plan together so families could have as much flexibility as possible. We also put our three options out July 1 so people would have plenty of time to decide what works best for them.”
Jennings had zero turnover of faculty and staff members this year. Meador said he was able to reallocate one teacher to be solely dedicated to the approximately 50 students whose parents chose the district’s virtual academy option for 2020-21.
During the lead-up to the first day, Payton Doty had inquired about hand-washing protocols at her child’s school but said ultimately she is satisfied with the Jennings plan.
“I feel the school has put all the necessary precautions in place and feel very comfortable sending my student to school,” Doty said.
According to the Jennings school reopening plan, teachers are allotting time within their schedules for students to wash their hands four times a day, at minimum, and lunch periods were rescheduled to allow for greater social distancing in the school cafeteria.
Parents are asked to pre-screen their children for any possible symptoms before sending them to school each day.
And the school will conduct temperature screenings for students, faculty/staff and any visitors, when they arrive.
Masks are optional for Jennings students, as well as all faculty and staff except for cafeteria workers. But the school purchased cloth neck gaiters that cover the nose and mouth, emblazoned with the Jennings blue jay mascot, for every child.
According to the latest data reported by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, Pawnee County, where Jennings is located, has had 127 confirmed cases, of which 109 have recovered, and three deaths.
Another rural district was set to begin the new academic year on Monday, but had to hold off until Tuesday after a teacher turned up with COVID-19.
That district, Bennington Public Schools, is located between Durant and Hugo in southeastern Oklahoma’s Bryan County.
Bryan County has recorded 402 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, 324 recoveries and one death.
Bennington Superintendent Pamela Reynolds and Bryan County Health Department officials did not respond to requests for comment. But school officials shared details and answered parent questions about the cause for delay on the district’s Facebook page.
“We had a staff member who tested positive for Covid-19, and this staff member will be required to stay at home until cleared by medical professionals. Out of an abundance of caution, we will require a few other staff members to quarantine as well,” it reads. “We have taken the proper cleaning and sanitization precautions, and we have worked with the Bryan County Health Department to ensure we have made the best decision about how and when to open our school.
“We apologize for this disruption, but we also realize there will likely be other disruptions as we move forward this school year. We look forward to seeing our students tomorrow, and we thank all of our stakeholders for their patience, understanding, and support.”
Related video: Let's Talk Town Hall on "Back to School"
Gallery: Your guide to the 2020 Tulsa mayoral candidates. Election day is less than a month away.