Back-to-school season during a pandemic has parents in many districts staring down deadlines about school choice options many never before considered.

What do local teachers and school leaders want parents to know?

School this fall will look nothing like the emergency response they cobbled together amid a sudden, statewide shutdown order in the spring.

“The first key difference is preparation. Everyone has had this on their mind all summer,” said Akela Leach, who teaches fifth-grade language arts and social studies at Tulsa’s Lanier Elementary School. “Teachers didn’t have their materials — we weren’t able to get back in our classrooms. Everyone was just operating off of panic mode and there were so many platforms.

“I never even heard of Zoom before March.”

Millions in state and local dollars have been poured into online learning access because at-home learning or “distance learning” is expected to be a new norm — and many local schools are reallocating teachers to serve local students in virtual academies for parents who want to forgo any in-school instruction for 2020-21.

So how do you best keep your child safe while also getting them the best education possible during what promises to be a most extraordinary academic year?

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist says the choice between keeping your children enrolled in their current schools, which will likely alternate between distance learning when rates of community spread of the coronavirus virus are high and in-person instruction in the classroom when rates are low enough — and enrolling them in a dedicated virtual school option boils down to this.

“I would encourage a family whose desire is to have their children back in school, in person, as soon as it is safe enough to do so to choose our traditional school enrollment,” Gist said. “Our distance learning model prioritizes direct connection to the child’s assigned teachers and their classmates.

“Most students will be more successful in our distance learning model due to the high level of self-direction and self-pacing that our virtual academy and other virtual schools require. It definitely works very well for some — but not for most.”

Leach said many children may have received quite a bit of review work rather than new instruction, and that was also because teachers were focused on helping them retain what they had just learned and helping them cope with their new circumstances.

“It was a traumatic experience. We are trained to pay attention to that and to center on that first,” she said. “That maintaining of community and feeling like I’m a part of Lanier, we will be more prepared to deal with that so students don’t feel as isolated as they might have.”

From Day 1 of the new year, which is expected to begin in distance-learning mode, Leach’s students will be getting the kind of instruction parents expect and daily, personal interaction with teachers and classmates they know.

Her lessons will be aligned to state academic standards and sequenced to build upon each other, and students will have workbooks and other off-computer work to reinforce those lessons and then small student group check-ins by Leach.

“They will not be expected to sit in front of a computer for hours,” she said. “The new social studies textbooks are more engaging, but there is an online component that is also really good and now critical to accomplishing distance learning. It’s not about the gadgets and the glitz — it’s quality content.

“If your kid is going to the Tulsa Virtual Academy or in distance learning, they are still going to be getting quality curriculum that has gone through a lot of processes to even be adopted by our district.”

Danielle Neves, deputy chief of academics at TPS, said significant, new investments with state and local funding in digital curriculum and laptops and mobile internet access devices for students, intensive training to prepare staff, and new support for families in how to use digital tools and getting help are critical for 2020-21.

“With our recommendation to start in distance learning, it means when it is time to be back in person, and we pick up our print materials in the classroom, it will be seamless,” Neves said. “Some of the investment is exciting because we are going to leverage digital resources in new ways when we are back full time in-person. We will have gained all of these skills.”

To date, more than 2,500 Tulsa students have expressed interest in the Tulsa Virtual Academy, a new option created because of the pandemic.

While the marketplace of virtual school options is greater than it’s ever been before in Oklahoma, Gist said many parents may not realize TPS has been in that business for more than 10 years with its Tulsa Learning Academy.

“Our commitment to students in the new Tulsa Virtual Academy is to have the highest quality and best experience compared to any other virtual option their family might consider,” Gist said. “Every resource the district has available to us are used in direct service to our students and their families.”

She added: “Unlike other entities, our only motivation is excellent service to our students and their families,” referring to for-profit models offered by other virtual school operators.

Parents of TPS students have until Aug. 10 to enroll their child in the district’s Virtual Academy, so that schools know how many teachers to reallocated to fill that need.

Students enrolled in traditional schools, even if they are in distance-learning mode, will have the ability to participate in activities and sports if they are held, but virtual academy students will not.

In most districts with a virtual school option, parents who enroll their children are committed to keep them there for either the first quarter, or in the case of TPS, the first semester, before they could change their minds and return their children to their home school.

Carver Middle School Principal Elton Sykes said 60 of his school’s 660 students have already enrolled in TPS’ virtual academy.

Staff at Carver and many other schools have been working around the clock to personally contact every child’s parent or guardian to find out if their child needs a computer or mobile internet hotspot and to answer any questions they might still have as they weigh their school options amid a deadly pandemic.

“I think some of them made the decision before our district announced the recommendation to start the year out in distance learning,” Sykes said. “What I heard from parents and what I saw in survey results — parents are very concerned about the safety of the students and the safety of the teachers who are serving them.”

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Andrea Eger 918-581-8470

Twitter: @AndreaEger

Staff Writer

Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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