Ray Carter | June 3, 2020

School reopening plan released

Ray Carter

The final two months of the 2019-2020 school year were conducted via distance learning due to COVID-19 concerns. A new plan released by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) indicates learning in the coming school year is expected to occur in the traditional classroom setting—although with new procedures implemented and districts advised to be prepared to transition to online learning based on local COVID-19 trends.

The agency’s “Return to Learn Oklahoma: A Framework for Reopening Schools” plan includes a literal checklist of issues and procedures school district leaders should address over the summer months as they prepare for the return to school in August.

“Return to Learn Oklahoma: A Framework for Reopening Schools is a compendium of factors for individual districts to consider as they determine how to begin the school year with a focus on learning and the safety and ongoing health of students, staff, and families,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister writes in the report. “It is not necessary to act on every consideration in this comprehensive framework. Rather, in keeping with the guidance we have received from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Oklahoma health officials, districts should take a layered approach to COVID-19 mitigation, adopting those policies and practices that are feasible, practical, and acceptable within their school community.”

“We now know children were at low risk from the virus and that pulling them out of school didn’t affect that risk one iota.”

The plan comes amidst evidence that the COVID shutdown of schools in Oklahoma and elsewhere may have been unnecessary and ultimately harmful to students’ academic progress and even personal well-being.

Among other things, the state plan urges school districts to “adopt policies that set health protocols for building entry/access, group sizes, social distancing, screening, and monitoring symptoms, what to do if a student or staff member tests positive, and re-entry following mandatory quarantine or isolation.”

“It is important to note that the CDC does not recommend requiring students or staff to be tested for COVID-19 or its antibodies before entering a school,” the report states.

When conducting in-person instruction, the report recommends that districts “generally consider ways to keep individuals apart,” urging a six-foot separation when children are in groups. It also notes the CDC suggests keeping “cohorts of students together and not intermixing groups.”

To achieve social distancing, the OSDE suggests districts could stagger the days students are in school buildings, space desks at least six feet apart with all desks facing the same direction, and even “consider holding some classes outdoors, if possible, or in larger spaces such as gymnasiums, auditoriums, and cafeterias.”

The plan also suggests that schools serve meals in classrooms rather than cafeterias.

Schools are also urged to close common areas or require staff to wear masks when space does not allow for appropriate social distancing.

Should a staff member or student exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 during the school day, districts are told to isolate those individuals and send them home “immediately.” The individual would not be allowed to return for roughly two weeks and only after having met various CDC criteria. The same restrictions are recommended for any student found to have come into close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

Districts are encouraged to prepare closure scenarios that “include short-term closures of a few days, mid-term closures of a few weeks, and longer-term closures” in preparation for any potential upswing in local infections.

As with most COVID-19 guidance, the state department urges schools to emphasize hand washing and school cleaning and adds that districts may want to ban use of school buildings by outside groups.

During this year’s state-ordered transition to distance learning, which began in April in Oklahoma, many school districts effectively stopped teaching new material, and while assignments were provided students were informed they would not be graded.

The OSDE framework for the 2020-2021 school year states that mathematics teachers should ensure previous grade-level work is connected to on-grade-level work “throughout the school year.” The document also says that in virtual learning students should “complete follow-up work and submit assignments electronically” and that teachers should monitor student work.

Oklahoma schools were not unique in largely abandoning instruction during the COVID shutdown. The effects of that lost learning time, in Oklahoma and elsewhere, are expected to be severe, a fact referenced in the OSDE report.

“Every summer, we confront the so-called ‘summer slide,’ and educators plan ways to quickly review the previous year’s learning after school resumes in the fall,” Hofmeister wrote. “As we prepare for the coming school year, we face a twofold learning loss—the summer slide has been compounded by a strikingly unconventional ending to the spring term.”

A brief released in April by the Collaborative for Student Growth reported, “Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”

The Collaborative report added that “the school closures caused by COVID-19 have additional aspects of trauma to students, loss of resources, and loss of opportunity to learn that go well beyond a traditional summer break for many families.”

The severe negative impact of COVID school closures on student learning and long-term outcomes is being reported amidst continued debate over the decision to close schools in the first place.

Columnist Debra J. Saunders has noted that long-term school closures were “a reaction that never had occurred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early coronavirus guidelines recommended school closures only when an infected person had been in a building or in areas of high infections rates—and then for two to five days.”

The head of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health recently said her agency did not support the closure of schools in that nation because data did not support it.

In a recent blog, Byron Schlomach, director of the 1889 Institute, and Benjamin Lepak, a legal fellow at the 1889 Institute, wrote that among all COVID shutdown orders issued this year “none have been more imprudent than closing Oklahoma’s schools for the last 9 weeks (practically a full quarter) of the year.”

During the shutdown, Schlomach and Lepak noted, “instruction has effectively been canceled, except to give grades away like candy.”

The pair wrote that “we now know children were at low risk from the virus and that pulling them out of school didn’t affect that risk one iota. We also now know the adults in the system had practically nothing to fear from the children.”

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in April reviewed more than 2,500 coronavirus cases among children younger than 18 between Feb. 12 and April 2. It found that most children who catch COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms or are asymptomatic and that children generally fare better than adults.

The report noted children and youth age 18 and younger represent 22 percent of the U.S. population, but comprised just 1.7 percent of COVID-19 cases in the country at that time. The report said “most COVID-19 cases in children are not severe,” although hospitalization occurs in some instances.

A late April report from Don’t Forget the Bubbles, a site for pediatric medical professionals, similarly noted, “COVID-19 appears to affect children less often, and with less severity, including frequent asymptomatic or subclinical infection. There is evidence of critical illness, but it is rare. The role of children in transmission is unclear, but it seems likely they do not play a significant role.”

Data reported by the Oklahoma State Department of Health shows that as of June 3 just 3.97 percent of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma were school-age children age five to 17. No Oklahoma school-age child with COVID-19 has died from the virus. In contrast, 80.65 percent of all Oklahoma deaths from COVID-19 have been individuals age 65 and older.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health provides county-level COVID-19 data through May 31, covering all months when in-person school would have otherwise occurred this year. As of the end of May, three counties in western Oklahoma recorded no COVID-19 cases, while another 25 counties recorded 10 or fewer total cases.

Nonetheless, school sites in all those counties were closed.

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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