Ray Carter | January 13, 2022

Oklahoma parents left in lurch by school closings

Ray Carter

More than $2 billion in federal COVID-bailout funds have been provided to Oklahoma school districts since 2020 to cover the costs to safely open amidst the pandemic. But despite that lavish infusion of cash, numerous schools are now closing again amidst the rise of the Omicron variant.

That has left many parents—and students—with an unsettling sense of déjà vu.

“In Edmond and Deer Creek, the families that I know, the kids are stressed because the last time this happened, they didn’t go back to school,” said Kandice Jeske, a mother of three children in the Deer Creek area. “My second grader is asking because we were in kindergarten when we missed nine weeks of school. So the kids are very confused, very stressed out and super-emotional, and rightfully so.”

When Margaret Coates, interim superintendent of Owasso Public Schools, announced that one of that district’s schools was shifting to remote learning and others could follow, she wrote, “I understand that a move to distance learning may be an inconvenience to your family and I apologize for that.”

But Owasso mother Jennifer Johnson said the reality of distance learning is far worse than that for many families.

“Really, for a lot of families, it is so much more than just an inconvenience,” Johnson said. “It causes parents to lose wages because they can’t go to work. It causes disruption in children’s schedules, which then with a lot of kids who may have some special needs or special requirements, it throws off their schedule and that can throw off the dynamic of the family. Really, calling it an ‘inconvenience’ is almost a slap in the face to parents, because it’s so much more than that.”

“Calling it an ‘inconvenience’ is almost a slap in the face to parents, because it’s so much more than that.” —Owasso mother Jennifer Johnson

In recent days, several schools across the state have announced they are either shifting to online learning, which has proven inferior to in-person instruction and is a major factor in statewide learning loss since 2020, or are closing down for several days.

Oklahoma City Superintendent Sean McDaniel recently announced that all schools in the district were shifting to online learning until Jan. 18 due to high COVID counts. McDaniel indicated the shift will strip students of most interaction with teachers, writing that under the district’s online system students simply log in “and complete lessons and assignments on their own.” Parents of elementary school students were provided only a 40-minute window, from 8:20 a.m. to 9 a.m., to log in each day and interact with a child’s teacher “to discuss the day’s expectations and so the teacher can answer any questions you may have.”

The Oklahoma City district has required all staff to wear masks and even fired six teachers over its mask policy. Since the district fired the noncompliant teachers, the schools’ COVID cases have soared.

While in-person instruction will not be provided, Oklahoma City continues to allow in-person athletics.

“Activities and athletics will continue for OKCPS students during asynchronous learning, while following existing COVID protocols,” McDaniel wrote.

Rick Cobb, superintendent of the Mid-Del School District, recently announced his district was suspending classes from Jan. 13 to 17, which will effectively be treated like snow days. As at Oklahoma City, Cobb wrote that athletic events would continue if possible, even as Mid-Del is canceling classes due to COVID.

“To the extent that we can, we will proceed with student activities,” Cobb wrote, although he conceded that it “may seem counterintuitive to continue practicing and competing while school is closed.”

Polls Show Increased Support for School-Choice Expansion

Prolonged COVID shutdowns at many schools in the 2020-2021 school year had already fueled a significant increase in public support for expansion of school-choice policies in both Oklahoma and nationwide, even prior to the Omicron variant.

A national survey of 2,715 parents of school-aged children, conducted January 3-6 by National School Choice Week (NSCW), a not-for-profit public awareness effort, found nearly 14 percent of U.S. parents are currently considering finding new or different schools for their children due in part to frustration with COVID disruptions. In addition, 38 percent of parents reported that within the past year they chose a new school for at least one child or considered doing so. In total, 51.7 percent of parents considered or are considering new schools for their children. Among the 48.3 percent of U.S. parents who are not considering new schools, or did not within the past year, 18 percent indicated they were likely to start the process of searching for new schools for their children in advance of the 2022-2023 school year.

A poll of 500 Oklahoma likely voters, conducted by WPA Intelligence on behalf of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, 2021, found that 55 percent of voters said Oklahoma public schools have gotten worse. The poll found 74 percent of likely voters support using the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public school or private school which they believe best serves their needs, with 53 percent saying they strongly support that proposal.

Some data indicate that many Oklahoma parents have already begun shifting away from traditional public schools. Anecdotal reports indicate most private schools in the state are near capacity, and enrollment numbers for public schools have declined.

In the 2019-2020 school year, the first affected by COVID, total state enrollment in public schools was 703,650. The following school year it fell to 694,113, after having previously been on a trajectory of steady growth since at least the 2008-2009 school year. Enrollment recovered slightly to 698,696 this year but remains below pre-COVID norms.

Jeske and Johnson are among the families that pursued the school-choice options currently available in Oklahoma. After concluding that Deer Creek’s COVID policies were harming her children’s education, Jeske used the open-transfer process to enroll her children in another district. Johnson chose to homeschool.

Neither family regrets their decision.

“I have been so grateful that we’re homeschooling as we’ve watched all these schools close one by one,” Johnson said. “We have seen kids fall behind. Kids are struggling with their mental health. Kids are struggling with their grades, with their academic progress. But my kids have had consistency. We’ve been able to stick to a schedule, and I feel like my kids are thriving.”

How Have Schools Used COVID Bailout Funds?

Like many families who have grown frustrated with local school policies, Jeske and Johnson are active in Parent Voice Oklahoma, a coalition that seeks to elevate the role of parents in public policy debates. Amidst the latest round of COVID shutdowns, many parents are asking what schools did with the $2 billion in federal funding they received for safe reopening.

“If all this money has been put forth towards COVID mitigation, did it work?” Johnson asked. “Were all the efforts in vain? Because it clearly isn’t working.”

Jeske said Deer Creek was slow to use its funds to bump the pay offered to substitute teachers and that district’s pay for substitutes still remains below that offered in some other districts.

“We don’t see how that money’s been spent, besides hand sanitizer,” Jeske said.

But, she said, school officials often object when parents ask pointed questions about spending.

“When you ask about it, you’re just an ‘angry parent,’” Jeske said. “When you ask for some accountability—How we spent this money? What are you doing to assure that our child’s education is going to be protected and guaranteed?—(the response is), ‘You’re just mad.’”

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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