The Tulsa school board voted to delay the return to in-person instruction for elementary students in grades four through six until January during a special meeting Thursday night.
Superintendent Deborah Gist had recommended at the beginning of the meeting that the district continue its plans to bring back fourth through sixth graders — those attending elementary schools — on Nov. 30. Board members rejected that recommendation 2-4, with only Suzanne Schreiber and Jerry Griffin voting in favor. Jennettie Marshall did not attend the meeting for health reasons.
Following the vote, board member Shawna Keller motioned to bring back fourth through sixth grade students in elementary school on Jan. 4. Only Jania Wester and Griffin voted against that motion.
Students in prekindergarten through third grades will remain in in-person learning after Thanksgiving break.
Tulsa Public Schools currently is implementing a phased return for its students to in-person instruction, with prekindergartners and kindergartners having transitioned from distance learning last week. Those in first through third grades returned this week, while elementary students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades were scheduled to come back Nov. 30.
All middle, junior high and high school students are scheduled to begin in-person learning Jan. 4, after winter break.
Concerns about these plans escalated as suburban school districts have resorted to moving their secondary students — and some in elementary grades — back to distance learning due to staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.
At Tulsa Public Schools, students and adults in 22 elementary classrooms have been quarantined since the beginning of last week due to positive cases and contract tracing, district officials said in Thursday’s meeting. Five athletic teams representing two schools also have been quarantined.
Additionally, one school — Kendall-Whittier Elementary — has transitioned back to distance learning due to a combination of staffing challenges and “external COVID-19 close contacts” causing “inadequate capacity to support in-person learning” until Dec. 2.
Despite these issues, Gist maintains that proceeding with in-person learning for elementary students is a better option than sticking with or reverting back to distance learning.
The key questions, she said, are whether the district can minimize risk in schools for students and for employees. She believes the answer to both is yes.
“What the science and local, national and international data are showing us now is that we can have our children, particularly elementary-age children, in school in person and have little risk of COVID transmission,” Gist said. “We have seen that from schools around the country and from schools in our areas this fall.”
However, several board members argued that returning older students to school while there is no statewide mask mandate is too dangerous to risk — especially with the likelihood of increased cases stemming from Thanksgiving gatherings.
Featured video: Tulsa Health Department’s Bruce Dart talks about school activities during COVID-19
Gallery: COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.