Secondary students in Tulsa Public Schools will remain in distance learning until after winter break, the school board decided Monday evening.
In a virtual meeting, board members voted 6-1 to have students in middle, junior and high school transition on Jan. 4 to in-person instruction four days a week. Wednesdays will be spent in distance learning.
The only “no” vote came from Jerry Griffin, who said he believes the return date should be much earlier than more than two months from now.
The school board voted last week to send elementary students back to the classroom four days a week starting in November, with Wednesdays spent in distance learning. That vote was much more narrow, with three board members voting against the motion.
The board at the time could not make a decision about secondary students and agreed to resume the conversation at this week’s meeting.
Students in prekindergarten and kindergarten will return four days a week Nov. 9, while those in first through third grades will return four days per week starting Nov. 16. Those in fourth and fifth grades will go back to campus Nov. 30, along with sixth-graders who attend elementary school. Families that wish to remain in distance learning will be able to do so.
On Monday evening, Griffin first proposed that high-schoolers return to campus Nov. 16, but the motion did not receive any approval from the rest of the board. Board member Suzanne Schreiber later made a motion to allow sixth-graders and ninth-graders to return Nov. 30, while the remaining secondary grades would come back the following week, but that motion was rejected 4-3.
Board Vice President Jania Wester, who previously served as principal at Zarrow International School, voted against Schreiber’s motion along with Jennettie Marshall, Shawna Keller and John Croisant. Wester also voted last week against having elementary students transition to in-person classes.
She called returning to school amid the pandemic a nightmare for principals because they’re now having to be compliance managers in addition to instructional leaders.
“I can’t even imagine how I would have handled this as a principal, having to make sure all the little kids in my school maintain social distancing and that they fit in the classroom,” she said. “I don’t know how this is going to work. I really don’t.
“We want our students to come back, especially for the social and emotional side. And there’s not going to be a lot of socializing, or at least we’re going to be requesting that there’s not a lot of socializing and hope that they comply with that.”
Superintendent Deborah Gist agreed with Wester in that in-person instruction is a daunting task and that school teachers and leaders once again are being asked to bear the weight of society’s failure to take action.
However, she said returning to the classroom is possible, as evidenced by suburban districts that have implemented in-person instruction for most or all of the fall.
No matter what the board decided, Gist said there would be no way to assure social distancing within schools — especially with full classes.
“What we want is to maximize the space to the extent that we can,” she said, “to maximize our time outside, to make sure that our teachers — while they’re unlikely to be able to always be six feet away from any children — are moving and they are not sitting and having a close communication or contact with a student or a small group of students within six feet for more than 15 minutes.
“It’s that movement and that rotation that is so important, and that is what the direction to us is from the Health Department.”
After Schreiber’s motion failed, Shawna Keller motioned to keep all secondary students in distance learning through the rest of the calendar year, saying it doesn’t feel right to bring them back to school at this point in the pandemic.
Health experts say older students are more likely than younger ones to spread and get sick from COVID-19.
Keller said having secondary students return to school after winter break instead of a few weeks before the break will make it easier for them to readjust to in-person learning and allow them to finish the semester, which now ends in mid-January due to the late start to the school year, on a strong note.
“I feel like maybe it offers a little bit more consistency for everyone involved,” she said. “I feel like a lot of our teachers and a lot of our kids have gotten into a rhythm in distance learning, especially at the secondary level.”
The decision to remain in distance learning far longer than surrounding school districts has been a controversial one for Tulsa Public Schools. Administrators have received heated criticism from parents who argued that remote instruction wasn’t a viable option for their children.
Other parents urged the district to continue distance learning until it becomes safer for students to return to school.
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