Sack meals are passed out at Rockwood Elementary in Oklahoma City on March 23. Many schools across the state continue to distribute breakfast and lunch during the state’s closure of all public schools. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

As health officials predict a months-long continuation of the coronavirus pandemic, the state Board of Education on Wednesday ordered school districts to keep buildings closed for the remainder of the academic year and pivot to distance learning programs, a directive that lacks uniformity and allows districts extreme flexibility. 

“It’s going to look different for all schools and we have to accept that,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister at Wednesday’s board meeting.

While some districts are expected to launch online-based instruction programs that can be accessed through school-issued laptops, others will be limited due to a lack of technology and home internet service.

“Distance learning in rural Oklahoma is going to be different than it is in many other parts of the state,” said Matt Holder, superintendent of Sulphur Public Schools. 

Holder said he doubts an online program will work in his district because some households lack internet access. 

In Murray County, where Sulphur is located, just 65 percent of households have access to standard broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission

Broadband access varies greatly across the state, with many counties in southwest Oklahoma having fewer than 50 percent connectivity rates. 

Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South schools, a charter school system in south Oklahoma City, said it would cost as much as $500,000 to equip all his students with laptops and roll out an online program. 

Because end of year testing and the annual school report card have been cancelled for this year, schools won’t be chasing test scores or annual assessment scores in the final months of the school year. 

“We will have a lot of flexibility, but my students will still have to take the test next year and I don’t want to fall further behind,” Brewster said. 

“I think the state is doing the best it can through a very tough situation. We have great flexibility but I worry that means less accountability and more inequality.” 

Like all public schools across the state, Capitol Hill High School in south Oklahoma City is closed in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

While many districts will be limited in what they can offer, some education leaders hope distance learning efforts bring about new ideas that can be used once the coronavirus pandemic is over. 

“It’s hard for us at the state level to not have control over what the quality of education is going to look like and it will vary from district to district,” said Jennifer Monies, a member of the state board of education. “But I think knowing that there are a lot of districts that will think outside the box and do a lot of innovative things is exciting.” 

Brent Bushey, executive director of the nonprofit Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, said the chance to innovate will present itself in the coming months. 

“I don’t want to put a rosy face on this, kids aren’t going to be served as well as they were before the shutdown,” Bushey said. “But on the flip side I think that if schools embrace this opportunity and really lean into this they are going to learn about more resources they weren’t aware of.”

One big question about distance learning is how to serve special education students who require accommodations. 

“That’s the biggest question we get,” Bushey said. 

The state Department of Education is expected to issue guidance this week on special education services during the shutdown.

Gov. Kevin Stitt was joined by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister at a news conference on March 12 to provide an update on the state’s response to COVID-19. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Each district is required to submit a distance learning plan to the state Department of Education for review and approval. 

“As we talk about distance learning it’s really important that we acknowledge distance learning doesn’t mean it’s only technology based or only online,” board member Carlisha Bradley said. “There is a unique burden on several of our districts to deliver services in a different way.” 

The state board had originally closed schools until April 6 as cases of COVID-19 began appearing in Oklahoma. 

But Hofmeister told school leaders earlier this week she felt it was best to keep school sites closed until at least after summer. 

“This was a very difficult decision for the superintendent to make but she believes this proposal is the best of limited options,” said Phil Bacharach, Hofmeister’s chief of staff. “We totally understand the challenges it is going to pose for people, whether in terms of child care or even seniors who deserve all the pomp and circumstance that goes with being able to graduate your senior year.”

Bacharach said making the decision now gives schools more time to salvage some semblance of education this year. 

The state board’s order sets a recommended end date of May 8 through 15, but allows districts to go longer if desired. 

Hofmeister told the board the current distance learning order “may be a dry run” for next school year as the coronavirus pandemic evolves. 

Most state public school systems have closed for some length of time and at least two states have closed school sites for the remainder of the academic year, according to the publication Education Week.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered the closure of nonessential businesses in 19 counties with confirmed cases of COVID-19. He also banned gatherings of 10 or more people. 

Oklahoma’s positive coronavirus cases reached 167 as of Wednesday morning, according to the state Health Department. 

Many districts are offering daily grab and go breakfast and lunch, but the closure of school sites will cutoff many students from mental health and behavioral support.

“I’m worried about our kids, I’m worried about our families, I’m worried about our staff, I worry a lot,” said Sean McDaniel, superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools. 

Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent Sean McDaniel at Rockwood Elementary School. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

McDaniel said rolling out a distance learning program in a large district like Oklahoma City with a diverse student body will be challenging. In Tulsa, school leaders said they plan to launch a new website with learning resources families can access. 

At Wednesday’s state board meeting, where members met via video conference, votes were also taken to give districts flexibility on using textbook funds and implementing alternative education programs. 

Board members acknowledged a diversity of distance learning programs will mean an unequal education system in the months to come. 

We know “there are pretty extreme inequities in the system as it exists now,” Monies said. “Some people in Oklahoma don’t have reliable internet connection, they don’t have devices at home, they have parents having to work. Knowing there are a million different situations that kids find themselves in.”

McDaniel said he worried about the current economic decline and what it could mean for school funding in the years to come. He’s also concerned the student achievement gap could grow wider during the shutdown. 

But McDaniel said his focus will be on meeting the immediate needs of students as best he can. 

“This is not normal, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,” McDaniel said. “We’re going to get through this, but it’s a grind right now, there is no way around that.”