Department of Education ‘removing barriers’ that would prevent schools from closing

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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

Oklahoma’s Department of Education is telling schools not to worry about assessment benchmarks, attendance-based funding or other requirements when considering whether to close in response to the growing threat of COVID-19. 

While Oklahoma’s top school official isn’t ready to say schools across the state should close, she said the department wants districts to feel free to consider local health concerns. 

“We are removing barriers that would prevent school districts from making decisions that would be in the best interest of their students and their well being,” said Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Closing school can have an impact on attendance requirements, impact school accountability or other things that need to fall to the wayside when considering student health and safety.”

Hofmeister joined Gov. Kevin Stitt at a Thursday news conference where both said they weren’t recommending school closures. 

“When we have community spread, that is when we are going to recommend we close down schools,” Stitt said, referring to the transmission of the virus without knowing where a person became infected. 

State health officials have confirmed one positive case of the virus and two presumptive positive cases, including a third case identified in Jackson County on Thursday afternoon. 

Several states have recommended school closures, including Ohio, Michigan and Maryland. 

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 10,000 schools around the country had shut down in response to the novel coronavirus, according to Education Week.

Hofmeister said she is willing to close schools if the situation escalated.

“I won’t hesitate to lead in any kind of preemptive closure that is warranted based on information that we have at the time,” Hofmeister told The Frontier. 

Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s largest district, will be closed Friday. 

Mid-Del schools also announced it will close Friday after reports that a Utah Jazz player who tested positive for novel coronavirus spent time in the high school gym earlier this week. 

“Although the recommendation from state health professionals is to keep schools open, we cannot ignore the large amount of absences anticipated for Friday,” the district said in a statement. 

With spring break beginning next week or on Friday for many schools, some districts announced they will use the time to clean facilities. 

“Starting Friday, March 13 while students are away, our custodial crews will begin to clean and disinfect buildings throughout the district,” said Tom Thomas, superintendent of Lawton Public Schools. 

“If the situation progresses during spring break, we will communicate any plans and procedures before classes are scheduled to resume on Monday, March 23 via our notification system, social media, website and local media.”

Hofmeister said local districts should make decisions that fit their own needs. But the state Department of Education sent school leaders a 10-page document Thursday evening offering guidance when considering closure. 

While schools can have state funding reduced for not meeting the 180 day or 1,080 hours per year requirement, the document said the State Board of Education may waive the mandatory reduction of state aid if schools close because of the coronavirus.

“If a significant number of schools are not able to return for the full academic term, the OSDE and State Board would consider a uniform recommendation to waive the 180 days/1,080 requirements,” the document said. 

The state Department of Education is also prepared to apply for a waiver with the U.S. Department of Education if annual tests are not completed because of school closures due to the coronavirus.  

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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