Oklahoma schools using virtual days to poach teachers, cook records

Ray Carter | February 6, 2024

At some Oklahoma public schools, more than one in four school days are occurring online rather than in person, effectively generating bogus attendance records for schools, helping districts poach teachers from schools that do provide in-person instruction, and producing as little as 30 minutes of teaching per day even as taxpayers are funding full school days, according to state lawmakers.

“To be out of school 50 days, using virtual days for 50 of 160 days, in my opinion that is abusing a technology and is not serving our kids,” said state Sen. Kristen Thompson, R-Edmond.

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 school district officials decide to use a virtual day instead of a traditional snow day, the bill would require schools 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.”

“This is very common sense,” Thompson said. “The state is paying for a full day of education. It’s doing what’s right by our kids. And it is how we increase our educational outcomes.”

In the 2022-2023 school year, Thompson said one Oklahoma district had as many as 50 virtual school days, while several other districts had 30 to 39 virtual days built into their calendars.

The scheduling of so many virtual days can be especially impactful in Oklahoma, where state law allows schools to provide just 165 days of instruction, so long as 1,080 hours of total learning occur over the course of the year. Many other states mandate 180 days of instruction.

Paxton, R-Tuttle, said some schools are using virtual days to lure teachers away from other districts that do not. In effect, teachers can receive the same amount of pay for far fewer days of actual work in districts with routine virtual days.

“I’ve had phone calls from superintendents who do not utilize virtual days in any way, shape, or form,” Paxton said. “If there is a snow day, they take a snow day and make it up. They believe in educating their children. Would you believe that other school districts, their neighboring school districts that do utilize those virtual days, are using those as a recruiting tool to try and poach their teachers from their school district?”

“I would believe that,” Thompson responded, “because I’ve been told the same thing.”

Paxton said he had been contacted by one teacher who does not like virtual days, but when forced to provide instruction online by the district “she makes her kids actually stay on the computer and learn, the best that she can.”

“But she’s also competing with other teachers in her building, and other kids who are simply given a homework assignment to take home, fill it out, scan it in, send it back, and that’s an ‘attendance day,’” Paxton said.

He noted some districts allow students to choose, on an individual basis, if they will learn virtually or in-person on a day-to-day basis.

“I looked at that particular school’s attendance records at the State Department of Education,” Paxton said. “They’re over 98 percent attendance rate, but kids can log in from a vacation in Mexico that they’re ‘in school’ that day. Now, on the other side of that, when it comes to the A-F system on the grading of schools, that school’s a D. That 98 percent puts them as one of the highest-attended schools in the state. So, abuse? Yes. That school’s abusing the system.”

Because part of a school district’s funding is tied to the school’s average daily attendance, districts may be receiving payments they would not receive if a child was counted as absent instead of being “present” via a virtual day that involves little actual instruction.

Opponents dismissed the concerns raised by critics of virtual school days, and even argued that requiring teachers to interact with students online for several hours a day would be detrimental.

State Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, a Tulsa Democrat and former teacher, denounced lawmakers for highlighting the problems generated by excessive use of virtual days at public schools.

“I cannot, and I will not, ever be a part of any movement that accuses our schools of poaching and abuse,” Dossett said. “Shame on us if we’ve gotten there.”

But state Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, noted supporters of the bill were not lobbing empty allegations.

“I have seen school calendars,” Pugh said. “There are schools that have 40 to 50 virtual days built into the calendar. That is not an accusation. That is a fact. We may not like that fact being thrown in our face, and it may be inconvenient to the narrative, but that is a fact.”

State Sen. Carri Hicks, an Oklahoma City Democrat and former teacher, argued that there will be a “parent impact” if the state mandates that synchronous learning be provided for hours to multiple children in the same family on a virtual school day.

“We had a virtual day in my school district yesterday, and all three of our children had varying levels of complexity that met their needs in the grade level that they are on, but none of it required synchronous learning because there’s a very clear understanding that there are working parents in the home, so synchronous learning is very difficult and challenging,” Hicks said.

But state Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, noted that three years ago during COVID he “attended kindergarten” with a grandson on a virtual day.

“That wonderful teacher kept his attention for three hours,” Rader said. “Yes, there were breaks in there. I have every bit of confidence in our teachers being able to do three hours.”

Rader said it is “concerning” that schools have shifted from a “virtual day of that magnitude, what I experienced with my grandson, to days where now what the planned virtual day means is that the day before the student would receive a sheet of paper to fill out at home the next day, then bring it back to school the next day, and count it as a ‘virtual day.’”

Pugh also noted that students are being shortchanged by virtual days that involve less than an hour of actual interaction with, and instruction from, a teacher.

“I am concerned that a half-an-hour of a Google Meet doesn’t provide a day’s worth of education for that kid,” Pugh said, “whether it be a 12th grader taking an AP Chemistry course or a first grader who’s learning how to read.”

And Thompson noted the routine use of virtual school days for non-emergency situations forces many parents to take vacation days in order to care for their children, even when only 30 minutes of actual online instruction may be provided.

“We know that in-person, face-to-face (learning) is best,” Thompson said. “I have three kids. I’ve seen firsthand the struggles, the lack of quality instruction on those days. We’re not saying that they can’t. We’re giving them the opportunity. But we also are saying that because the state is funding a full day of education that we have expectations that there will be learning and interaction between our educators (and students) on those days.”

SB 1768 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 9-2 vote with all Republicans in support and all Democrats opposed.

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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