Education , Law & Principles

Ray Carter | February 1, 2024

Oklahoma school virtual days harming parents’ jobs

Ray Carter

Some Oklahoma public schools’ excessive use of virtual days for non-emergency situations is threatening the incomes of working parents or requiring them to use up most of their vacation time, according to state Sen. Kristen Thompson.

Thompson, who has filed legislation to curtail schools’ reliance on virtual days, said she has been contacted by many parents who have highlighted the ripple effects caused by school virtual days.

“I’ve been getting emails from parents,” Thompson said. “One in particular really struck me because I think what we have to understand is that this affects our current workforce. I had a mom reach out to me and she said over the last year she’s had to take four weeks of PTO (paid time off) because her kids cannot do virtual learning unattended.”

Under Senate Bill 1768, by Thompson and state Sen. 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.”

Thompson discussed the legislation during a recent press conference in which it was highlighted as part of the Senate Republicans’ education agenda for the current legislative session.

As a mother of three children, Thompson noted she has seen firsthand how virtual school days often provide a subpar learning environment. She previously noted that at some school districts, a virtual day may involve “only 30 minutes of lessons.”

Since announcing the filing of her bill, Thompson said she has received more information on schools’ use of virtual days.

“What I have learned over the last couple of weeks is that these actually are being abused,” Thompson said. “And they are not being used for what they were intended for.”

Thompson said she has been informed of districts that continue to use virtual days instead of in-person learning on a routine basis, having “50 virtual days, 30, 32, 39, 30, 32 days.” She indicated some of those schools are districts with high levels of student poverty.

The negative impact of virtual days may be greater in Oklahoma than in other states because Oklahoma has one of the shortest school years in the nation.

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 elsewhere.

Once routine virtual days are worked into a school calendar, the number of days of in-person instruction falls far below the 180 days that may occur in other states.

Oklahoma law also allows some schools to provide less than 165 days of instruction. Two of three schools that recently received approval to operate for less than 165 days had pre-scheduled virtual days included in their already shortened school calendars.

Thompson said she has also received positive feedback from educators who don’t like the constant back-and-forth transition from in-person instruction to virtual days.

“I’ve heard a lot from our teachers that have just simply said, ‘Thank you,’” Thompson said.

But she said the impact on parents’ workforce participation is one factor often overlooked in the debate over the use of virtual school days for non-emergency situations.

“We know that if kids are home, most likely a parent has to be home,” Thompson said, “and studies show that that’s women, that’s moms.”

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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