The phased return of Tulsa Public Schools students to their classrooms continued Monday even as local COVID-19 case numbers continue to spike.
Students in first, second and third grades went to their classrooms for the first time since March, when districts throughout the state shut down in response to the arrival of the pandemic in Oklahoma.
Prekindergarteners and kindergarteners were the first Tulsa Public Schools students to transition from distance learning to in-person instruction last week.
The next round of returning students will include those in fourth through sixth grades at elementary schools after Thanksgiving break on Nov. 30. Middle, junior high and high school students aren’t expected to return until after winter break on Jan. 4.
Superintendent Deborah Gist said the first week of in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year, while months later than usual, was successful. She expects more success during the second week as the additional grades return.
But at the same time, Gist is growing increasingly worried about Tulsa County and the state’s worsening COVID-19 transmission rates, which have caused suburban districts to send their older grades to distance learning for the rest of the semester. Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s only larger school district, also reverted back to distance learning just a few days after most of its students returned to the classroom.
“We are extremely concerned about the case counts that we’re seeing and the rise that we’ve seen in the number of COVID cases in our community in the last two weeks,” Gist said.
“It is absolutely critical for everyone in Tulsa to wear their masks and wash their hands and watch their distance so that our students can be in school. There is really nothing more important than making sure our students are able to stay in school when we’re thinking about the way that our community functions. It is critical that we get our students back to school.”
In the past two weeks, suburban school districts, which had been meeting in person, have moved their secondary students back to distance learning until after Thanksgiving break largely as a result of staffing shortages caused by quarantines and COVID-19 diagnoses.
Districts are struggling to overcome a serious lack of bus drivers and substitute teachers. Tulsa Public Schools is no stranger to these issues, which Gist acknowledges are bound to get worse.
“There’s no question that it’s going to be difficult for us,” she said. “It’s difficult for us to maintain staffing during regular years because of the shortages we see here in Oklahoma because of the fact that we don’t compensate our professional educators and our support employees in the way that we need to, and so we have these shortages.”
If transmission rates continue to get worse, Gist said, the Tulsa school board will need to discuss whether the return of older students should be delayed.
Related video: Gov. Kevin Stitt talks about Tulsa Public Schools return to classrooms
Gallery: States where COVID-19 has widened student achievement gaps
States where COVID-19 has widened student achievement gaps
Arkansas (not ranked)
Hawaii (not ranked)
Maine (not ranked)
Minnesota (not ranked)
Vermont (not ranked)
West Virginia (not ranked)
#25. Rhode Island
#22. South Dakota
#21. North Carolina
#12. New Jersey
#11. Washington D.C.
#5. New Hampshire
#2. New York
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