Some Oklahoma schools have more than a month of ‘virtual days’

Ray Carter | February 13, 2024

In the 2022-2023 school year, roughly one in five Oklahoma school districts shifted students to “virtual learning” for at least three work weeks of the school year with many even going online for roughly a month, according to public records.

The practice of routinely shifting students from in-person instruction to online learning in situations where no emergency is involved has been criticized by state lawmakers who note “virtual days” often involve as little as 30 minutes of work and very little direct student-teacher interaction.

At one Oklahoma school district, records show the number of virtual days in 2022-2023 exceeded the current number of students enrolled in the district.

At some districts that have relied heavily on virtual days, per-pupil funding is well above the state average.

A cursory review indicates that school districts relying heavily on virtual days also often have poor student outcomes, based on state testing results.

And some districts that relied the most on virtual days last year have continued the practice this year, according to their publicly posted calendars.

Two lawmakers who have led the charge to restrict public schools’ use of “virtual days” say the practice has been abused and cheats parents, students, and taxpayers.

Under Senate Bill 1768, by state Sen. Kristen 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.”

At a recent committee hearing, Thompson, R-Edmond, said the bill sends the message 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.”

Paxton, R-Tuttle, said there is a place for full-time virtual schools, which parents must proactively choose to enroll a child in, but that traditional public schools are funded based on the idea that they will be providing in-person learning to children.

“When I put them in those schools as a taxpayer, I’m paying for those buildings,” Paxton said. “I am paying for the utilities for those buildings. I am paying for the insurance for those buildings. I’m paying for the personnel to staff those buildings. I expect those buildings to be open to educate my children.”

That isn’t happening every day at a significant share of Oklahoma schools.

Each year, Oklahoma public school districts must self-report school-calendar information to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Numbers were finalized for the 2022-2023 school year in June 2023, and the agency has data on the number of school days on which each district reported full or partial virtual instruction.

Out of more than 500 public school districts in Oklahoma, more than 100 districts had 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 had 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 Beggs school district had the most virtual days of any school in Oklahoma, reporting that its students were shifted to distance learning on 49 days last year, the equivalent of nearly 10 work weeks.

The Beggs district continues to rely heavily on virtual days this year. The current school-year calendar includes 29 prescheduled virtual days either for all students or for students grades 7-12 out of 167 total instruction days.

The Beggs district has 1,073 students. While state tests show 49 percent of students in the Beggs elementary school tested proficient or better in core subjects, just 19 percent of middle school students and 14 percent of high school students did the same.

The Millwood school district reported having 36 virtual days in the 2022-2023 school year, and the district’s 2024-2025 calendar includes “virtual Friday” every week of the school year, meaning 34 days are virtual out of 175 teaching days.

The Millwood district has 1,108 students. 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.

Last year the Wapanucka district had 29 virtual days and its calendar for the 2023-2024 school year includes at least 23 prescheduled virtual days this year, all on Fridays. Of the 201 students enrolled in the district, state testing shows that 18 percent of elementary students tested proficient or better in core subjects and just 8 percent of high school students.

Public records show that some districts have an extremely high virtual days-to-students ratio.

The tiny PK-8 Terral school district has just 32 students, according to state records, but reported having 34 virtual days in the 2022-2023 school year. Only 10 percent of students in the district tested proficient in core subjects.

According to state records, Terral spends $34,016 per child, a sum that far exceeds most private-school tuition rates. And because state law requires that per-pupil calculation to exclude school spending on several categories that total several billion dollars combined statewide, the true per-pupil spending in the district is likely even greater.

Wapanucka also has per-pupil spending that exceeds most private-school tuition rates—at least $17,788 per child.

While not as extreme as Terral, the PK-8 Gypsy district also had a high ratio of virtual days to students. Last year, Gypsy reported having 30 virtual days with a current student enrollment of 58 children. Just 18 percent of students tested proficient or better in the district.

The Ryal school district reported having 30 virtual days last year and a current enrollment of 75. Only 4 percent of students tested proficient or better on state tests for core academic subjects. Ryal had per-pupil spending of at least $16,018 per child.

Schools’ heavy use of virtual days that often provide little real instruction can effectively make one of the nation’s shortest school years even shorter. While many states require 180 days of instruction per school year, Oklahoma 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.

The Okay school district reported having 31 virtual days last year and the current-year school calendar includes 26 virtual days out of 165 instructional days. The district serves 371 students. Just 21 percent of students in the Okay elementary school and 16 percent of high-school students tested proficient or better in core subjects.

The Keota school district reported that it shifted to virtual learning for 29 total days in the 2022-2023 school year and the district has 25 virtual days prescheduled on its 2023-2024 school calendar out of 165 instructional days. The district serves 409 students. Just 11 percent of elementary students tested proficient or better in core subjects, and 21 percent of high school students.

At Davenport, school officials reported having 26 virtual days last year. This year’s school calendar includes at least 21 virtual days out of 165 instructional days, mostly on Fridays. Davenport has 375 students. State tests show that 24 percent of elementary students and 21 percent of high school students tested proficient or better.

Based on school calendars, students in the Beggs, Okay, Keota, and Davenport districts may have just 138 to 144 days of in-person instruction this school year, assuming no other virtual days occur because of snow.

Paxton has noted the use of virtual days may allow schools to claim student attendance numbers that exceed what would occur if students were required to be physically present rather than simply logging onto a computer.

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 on an in-person day who is now instead counted “present” via a virtual day that involves little actual instruction or interaction.

While just under 78 percent of elementary students were reported to be in good attendance statewide, the figure for Wapanucka was just under 94 percent. Ryal reported that more than 91 percent of its students were in good attendance. Okay reported nearly 96 percent of students were in good attendance at its elementary school.

SB 1768 recently passed out of the Senate Education Committee. The bill can next be heard on the floor of the Oklahoma Senate.

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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