COVID-19 in Tulsa

Rob Kaiser, an assistant principal at Monroe Demonstration Academy, coordinates a supply distribution effort. Tulsa Public Schools has been distributing computers for students who are at home during the coronavirus outbreak. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World

Among all the professional development and higher education related to teaching and operating schools, no lessons exist on handling a pandemic.

There are drills and information about tornadoes, fires and, sadly, mass shootings. Some nasty flu bugs and the occasional case of meningitis have closed schoolhouses for a few days.

But nothing about what to do when a new virus spawns to dominate, cripple and shut down the world within months. Nothing about how to guarantee a safe environment with a still-unpredictable virus, no vaccine and an obstinate public.

Pandemic planning was once only in the creative minds of Hollywood scriptwriters. Now, it’s a reality for educators.

This past week, Tulsa Public Schools approved a plan on how to reopen schools in the fall starting with a modified calendar. More will be worked out, like putting directional arrows in hallways, adjusting transportation, rearranging classrooms and adding hand-washing stations.

Several districts have come forward with their own plans for how to launch the next school year.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education provided guidance in its Return to Learn Oklahoma framework. The 74-page document goes over potential approaches and things to think about but leaves decisions to the local boards.

That’s how it should be. Districts across Oklahoma vary greatly. Local elected board members and administrators know best the pros and cons of what will work in their communities.

The framework’s introduction warns that the upcoming year will likely still have short-term interruptions.

“As a result, it is imperative that schools now consider adjustments and plan contingencies for day-to-day operations so that any short-term (or longer) disruptions are minimized while ensuring adherence to public health guidance,” it states.

“… the most effective planning is subject to change as new information becomes available. As the nation and world learn more about COVID-19 and the many issues surrounding it, this guidance and the planning of districts are expected to evolve throughout the summer.”

Moore Public Schools let patrons know in early June they could choose from three options: traditional on-site instruction, full-time distance learning or a blend of those.

Oklahoma City Public Schools formed a “Return to School Task Force” to bring students back to on-site instruction. Students in third to 12th grades will be offered a 100% virtual learning option.

Distance learning will be possible for the Pre-K to 2nd grade Oklahoma City students, but not full-time. All students will receive an iPad or Chromebook.

For TPS, students will start nearly two weeks later — on Aug. 31 — with a last day of June 8. Longer breaks are worked into the year. Each Wednesday classes will go online, but that will be re-evaluated each quarter.

A lot remains to be worked out, and some decisions will be made site-to-site. The changes reflect a need for more intensive cleaning and teacher preparation.

TPS students needing to stay home due to 14-day quarantines will be able to get virtual or distanced instructions, said Superintendent Deborah Gist. This won’t be counted as being absent as long as they stay current on lessons.

This means teachers may have a set of students learning from home in addition to their traditional in-person classrooms. Teachers need more time to plan for that sort of mixed scenario.

TPS students also have the option of full-time, online learning. In a parent survey, about 15% (or 6,000 students) were interested in an all-virtual plan, but we’ve yet to see how many will enroll in that choice.

None of these are perfect. Or maybe they will be.

No one knows because no one has been faced with this in more than a century. Even with the 1918 flu pandemic, schools did not operate in the same way or with the same number of students and responsibilities.

Gist said she relied on advice from Tulsa Health Department, a pediatrics infectious disease specialist at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, chairman of the OU-Tulsa Pediatrics Department and the state Education Department guidance.

In addition to the parent survey, more than 1,200 teachers and staff were asked about different proposed calendars.

Give school staffs and leaders some grace. Be patient, be helpful and allow for mistakes and fast changes.

Because of these possible pivots, district leaders must be ready with communication plans that are clear and purposeful with ways to answer questions.

It’s good that the districts are making those decisions early so parents, and businesses where they work, can make arrangements.

To ensure a safe start for the fall, wear a mask now. Keep a social distance now. Refrain from large gatherings now.

Mayor G.T. Bynum estimated only about 20% of Tulsans are wearing a mask in public. That’s generous for some places.

Drop the politics, stop reading advice on social media and just put on a mask, especially around strangers in public.

A mask will not deplete oxygen; it does not reduce your freedom. It’s a public health recommendation that will stop the virus from spreading.

If everyone would show some personal responsibility, then the virus would have no place to thrive and our public institutions will be safer.


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Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

Twitter: @GinnieGraham