Already short school year includes virtual days at some Oklahoma schools

Ray Carter | January 25, 2024

In most states, public schools provide around 180 days of instruction per year, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center.

But in Oklahoma, schools can provide just 165 days of instruction, so long as 1,080 hours of total learning occur over the course of the year. That’s three work weeks less instruction than what occurs in most states.

But in some districts, the gap between Oklahoma and other states is even wider.

State law allows some districts to be exempted from the 165-day requirement, based on academic outcomes, meaning some districts provide even fewer days of instruction.

At this month’s meeting of the State Board of Education, three schools received approval to operate for fewer than 165 days: Antlers (150 days), Jennings (156 days), and Glencoe (158 days).

School calendars show that two of those three schools routinely incorporate pre-scheduled online virtual days rather than in-person instruction into their schedule. Jennings has eight “distance learning days” built into this year’s school calendar while Glencoe has five pre-scheduled “virtual days” this year.

That means students at Jennings may receive just 148 days of in-person instruction in a school year while Glencoe students may be provided only 153 days of in-person instruction.

That’s substantially less than the 180-day norm in most states—as much as 32 fewer days of potential in-person instruction, or more than six weeks’ worth of in-class time.

And the gap is even larger with some states, such as neighboring Kansas, which mandates a 186-day school year.

The issue of pre-scheduled virtual days may be an issue in this year’s legislative session. Two senators have filed a bill to rein in schools’ reliance on virtual days, which can involve very little teacher interaction with students.

Under Senate Bill 1768, by state Sens. Kristen Thompson and Lonnie Paxton, public schools could shift to virtual learning only in the event of inclement weather, staff shortages caused by illness, building maintenance issues, or if found necessary by school administrators.

When a school district decides to use a virtual day instead of a traditional snow day, the bill would require school districts to provide a minimum of five and a half hours of instruction to K-8 students and six hours to high school students. Additionally, more than half of the online or digital instruction must be synchronous under the provisions of SB 1768, meaning there must be “real-time interaction between a teacher and students as the primary format of instruction.”

Arkansas lawmakers have enacted a similar law that limits virtual days by requiring that public schools provide 178 in-person on-site learning days each school year.

In a release announcing the filing of SB 1768, Thompson, a mother of three, noted that while “Oklahoma taxpayers are footing the bill for a full day of instruction,” at some school districts a virtual day could involve “only 30 minutes of lessons.”

The fact that routine, pre-scheduled virtual days may be combined with Oklahoma’s shortened school year only further highlights the need for reining in the practice, Thompson said in an interview.

“Oklahoma has one of the shortest instructional day/hour requirements in the nation,” said Thompson, R-Edmond. “Studies show that more time in the classroom—not less—leads to educational growth in our students. Virtual days should be utilized for emergency purposes only.

Research has found that transitioning from in-person instruction to online learning during the COVID pandemic was strongly associated with student learning loss.

A May 2022 report from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University found that “remote instruction was a primary driver of widening achievement gaps” during the pandemic.

A 2021 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found “that pass rates declined compared to prior years and that these declines were larger in districts with less in-person instruction.”

Jennings and Glencoe’s reliance on pre-scheduled virtual days was not highlighted by the two schools when they requested permission to operate for less than 165 days.

In the schools’ letters requesting permission to operate on an even shorter school year, Glencoe Superintendent Jay Reeves wrote that as a result of the shorter school year “our teacher candidate pool has increased tremendously.” He wrote that Glencoe is “one of the very few districts in the state that did not hire any emergency certified or adjunct teachers, which is almost unheard of, and I credit that almost exclusively to our ability to follow this calendar flexibility.”

Glencoe is a PK-12 district with 340 students. It has operated on a four-day school week for most of a decade now.

Jennings is a PK-8th grade district that currently has 265 students and has operated on a four-day school week for 12 years.

Under state law, exemptions to the already short 165-day school-year requirement may be provided if schools achieve certain academic outcomes.

Antlers, Jennings, and Glencoe met those benchmarks.

In the 2022-2023 school year, the Antlers elementary school received a C on the state schools’ report card, while the district’s middle school and high school each received a B. The Jennings district received a C on its state report card. At Glencoe, the district’s elementary school received a B, and the high school received a C.

Even so, some board members expressed concern about making an already short school year even shorter.

“The Legislature put into law 165 days,” said state board member Kendra Wesson. “I can’t get past how less instruction time or less days in school is good for kids.”

During the meeting, Jennings Superintendent Derrick Meador said that while other Oklahoma schools may operate more days each year, those schools are typically not providing more instruction on the additional days.

Meador said Jennings’ current school year began Aug. 2, 2023, and will conclude on May 2, 2024. He said the schedule is designed so all academic standards will be taught before state testing in late April with only about one week after testing for things such as awards assemblies and graduations.

“There’s no downtime, because to prepare for state testing all of your standards have to be taught prior to state testing,” Meador said. “If you look at the schools going to the end of May, and you talk to those administrators, those teachers, they’re telling you there’s a lot of babysitting going on in those last few weeks. We don’t have that.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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