SAND SPRINGS — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister was at two Sand Springs schools Monday to praise educators at the suburban school district not only for their perseverance in getting through the last school year but also for embracing this summer as an opportunity to begin making up ground lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also emphasized that the key to starting school normally in the fall is to get as many eligible people as possible vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Speaking at Northwoods Fine Arts Academy and later at the Sixth Grade Center — Sandite Summer Camp is in full swing at both locations — Hofmeister said she wanted to thank all the teachers who are working during the summer to help students improve skills that declined during the pandemic.
“But we know there’s still work to do,” she added. “And we are seeing a lot of our schools innovate, including Sand Springs. We want to recognize the work that’s being done that allows kids of all ages — from pre-K up to high school — to get back on track to graduate.”
Sand Springs Superintendent Sherry Durkee “has led the district through a very challenging time and come out on the other side with a very cohesive plan to be able to smooth over any bumps that developed during the last year but also with a lot of momentum,” Hofmeister said. “That’s what we want in all of our school districts.”
Summer school, while not new, has taken on added importance this year, she said.
“For a lot of our school districts, there has been disruption that was unexpected, even though most of our school districts opened during the fall of last year,” she said. “But quarantining, and the disruption of exposure and illness, caused either teachers or students by the hundreds to be out of school at one time. And that’s very difficult to take a whole class forward when half are missing.
“So this opportunity in the summer has been paramount. We know, though, that it’s going to take more than just one summer to complete unfinished learning that kids experienced (and restore) that social-emotional reconnection that many lost,” she said.
“My heart’s full of gratitude for all of the teachers and support personnel — cafeteria workers — that have come here during the summer instead of getting ready for the next school year,” Hofmeister said. “They never stopped, and they continue to give back to students.”
She noted that “all over the state, including in Sand Springs, enrollment for summer programs is up, and we think that’s a great thing.”
Quantifying the disruption caused by the pandemic is not a quick process, Hofmeister said, noting that from district to district — almost family to family, even — officials have seen great differences.
“From a state view, we won’t have that full information confirmed and completed until mid-August,” she said.
“But from the preliminary information, we can see that actually, we have seen less of an impact than was expected initially, which is a really good sign and a testament to the incredible work of teachers and school officials who moved heaven and earth to connect with their students.”
Such innovation would not have been possible without financial assistance from the federal government, Hofmeister said.
“The new relief dollars that we received are extraordinary,” she added.
Sand Springs Public Schools has focused on using its additional dollars to make sure its summer programming covers the fundamentals but with extra helpings of fun.
Durkee said in May that it’s that “infusion of federal money that’s allowing us to provide some critical services.”
“We know that there are some gaps; some children have missed out on some enrichment,” she said then. “So we are going to focus on learning, with our math and reading standards,” but with a nod toward socialization and fun, including field trips and a lot of STEM activities.
Hofmeister also praised the duration of the recovery aid program, pointing out that it’s not just for this upcoming school year but “two or three school years with federal relief dollars to help offset any setbacks.”
She also knows that COVID-19 hasn’t gone away.
“We are still in a pandemic. Particularly those who cannot be vaccinated yet are the most vulnerable, which includes our children under the age of 12,” she said. “And so we have to still be mindful that for them, the pandemic is still very real.
“Even though the numbers have come down, we’re seeing flare-ups, and we could expect to see continued flare-ups if the adults who can be vaccinated delay that,” she said. “If you want to see schools open back up the way we all want for the fall, we can all do our important step in helping support schools by being vaccinated right now.”
Hofmeister added that the currently surging delta variant is a big concern.
“We should take the delta variant seriously. We are encouraging our families to work very closely with their pediatricians, with their family physicians, so that they can get the latest information and the information that is appropriate for their own family,” she said.
The state superintendent said a new law passed by the Legislature in May and signed into effect by Gov. Kevin Stitt that prohibits state schools and colleges from adopting mandatory mask mandates or vaccination requirements “really removes some of those safeguards,” she said.
“But it really comes down to more and more Oklahomans who are eligible to be vaccinated. If they will take that vaccine, it means we can better protect our kids who can’t yet have that.”
Hofmeister praised educators for embracing the importance of being vaccinated.
“I’m proud to say that the education field or industry has taken the vaccine at a much, much higher rate than any of the other industries or career fields that we’re seeing in the state,” she said. “I think over 80% had said yes to a vaccine early this spring.
“Teachers were on the front lines and saw what it means to have the disruption of quarantine and exposure delay or impede or interrupt learning and instruction, and they were very eager to take that vaccine, and we’re grateful.”