Senators vote to restrict school virtual days


Ray Carter | March 12, 2024

Senators vote to restrict school virtual days

Ray Carter

Members of the Oklahoma Senate have voted overwhelmingly to limit brick-and-mortar schools’ use of virtual days to emergency situations, saying children need as much in-person learning as possible.

“Virtual education, we have seen time and time again that it is just not as high-quality as in-person education,” 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 Kindergarten-to-8th grade 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.”

During debate and questions, opponents largely conceded that many schools’ routine use of pre-planned virtual days is not designed to benefit student learning, but instead to evade the state requirement that schools provide at least 165 days of instruction per year. Opponents indicated schools that use virtual days can attract employees by offering the same salaries as districts that meet five days a week while working fewer days.

“I understand that four-day school week and hybrid learning is very important for recruiting and retaining highly qualified, certified teachers,” said state Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman.

State Sen. Blake Stephens, R-Tahlequah, said the school where he worked prior to serving in the Oklahoma Legislature had “been doing this practice for eight or nine or 10 years now.” He said the virtual-days system is “working.”

The Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition (ORSC) opposed SB 1768, claiming it was “anti-rural school.”

The coalition particularly objected to the requirement that virtual days provide sustained student-teacher interaction and access. The group called the bill’s requirement for synchronous learning “unrealistic in rural areas of Oklahoma,” saying many students lack quality internet service access or are from families in which multiple children would need to access online learning simultaneously, a tacit admission that students receive little real instruction on virtual days in many districts.

“We hear a call from the majority to make schools more innovative, and yet when schools become innovative, they immediately say, ‘No, not that,’” said state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City.

But supporters said the reality of “virtual days” at many schools is that there is no real learning.

“We have heard from parents saying, ‘What it has turned into is they’re just bringing a sheet of paper home and they’re doing some work and then they take the sheet of paper back,’” said state Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa.

“All we are saying with this bill is if you are going to have a virtual day, then have an actual virtual day,” said Paxton R-Tuttle. “Sending home a piece of paper as an assignment is not a virtual day.”

“Even though we want innovation, innovation at the cost of educating our kids is not acceptable,” Thompson said.

Rader noted four-day school weeks were decried as a product of underfunding in 2018, but after lawmakers dramatically increased school spending the story changed and many of the same groups declared four-day weeks were now a teacher-recruitment tool.

Paxton noted that one school in his district previously reduced its school year to as few as 132 days when 180 was the norm throughout most of his wife’s three-decade career as a teacher. Lawmakers later restricted that practice by requiring that schools provide at least 165 days of instruction with 1,080 hours of instruction.

That still allows schools to have four-day weeks, Paxton noted, but they have to offer more weeks of school than they would on a five-day schedule.

But school officials have often tried to evade even that modest restriction.

“Once again, we start getting ‘creative’ about the number of days you’re in school: ‘Let’s call this day a virtual day,’” Paxton said, adding that the practice is “cheating the kids out of an education.”

Each year, Oklahoma public school districts must self-report school-calendar information to the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE). Numbers were finalized for the 2022-2023 school year in June 2023.

Out of more than 500 public school districts in Oklahoma, more than 100 districts reported having at least one site where students had two work weeks (10 days) or more virtual days throughout the 2022-2023 school year with sites at more than 60 districts imposing distance learning for three or more work weeks. And there were 36 districts that reported having at least one site that went virtual for four work weeks that year, effectively shifting a full month of instruction online – if not more.

The Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition argued the number of virtual days reported by districts to the Oklahoma State Department of Education for the 2022-2023 school year was not accurate. But many districts that reported using several weeks of pre-scheduled virtual days continue to list numerous pre-planned virtual days on their current school-year calendars posted on the school districts’ own websites.

For example, OSDE data shows that the Millwood school district reported having 36 virtual days in the 2022-2023 school year, and the district’s current 2024-2025 calendar includes “virtual Friday” every week of the school year, meaning 34 days are virtual out of 175 teaching days this year.

Similarly, the Wapanucka district reported 29 virtual days last year and its calendar for the 2023-2024 school year includes at least 23 prescheduled virtual days this year, all on Fridays.

The Keota school district reported having virtual learning for 29 total days in the 2022-2023 school year. The district has 25 virtual days prescheduled on its 2023-2024 school calendar out of 165 instructional days.

Schools that have effectively gone to four-day weeks while claiming a fifth day is a “virtual” school day often have poor academic outcomes.

State tests show just 9 percent of elementary school students at Millwood, 5 percent of middle school students and 3 percent of high school students tested proficient or better on core academic subjects.

In the Wapanucka district, just 18 percent of elementary students tested proficient or better in core subjects and only 8 percent of high school students.

Just 11 percent of elementary students tested proficient or better in core subjects at Keota, and 21 percent of high school students.

Thompson said SB 1768 has received strong support from families across Oklahoma.

“My inbox is full—full—of emails from parents and from teachers saying, ‘Thank you,’” Thompson said.

She read one email from a superintendent of a rural school who asked not to be identified by name. The superintendent’s email stated, “I know I am not in your district, but I keep hearing more of my fellow superintendents saying they are considering going to four-day weeks and circumventing the rules by calling the Fridays ‘virtual days.’ This is offensive to me and wildly disappointing.”

Thompson noted that virtual days force many parents to either take off work to stay home with their children or risk leaving their children unsupervised.

Thompson referenced another email from a mother in a rural school district who wrote that as of late January, the number of leave days the mother needed to stay home with her kids due to virtual days totaled seven weeks and four days.

“How in the world can someone maintain employment?” Thompson asked.

SB 1768 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 31-16 vote. It now proceeds to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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.

Loading Next