An empty crosswalk in front of Eugene Field Elementary School earlier this year as all Oklahoma schools remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Districts across the state are developing plans for starting the new school year as coronavirus infections continue to grow. But Oklahoma’s state Board of Education is not expected to issue a statewide closure of school buildings like it did four months ago. 

In March, the state board mandated the closure of schools when there were just 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. 

Headed into the new school year, which starts in early August for some districts, Oklahoma health officials are reporting several hundred new cases each day. 

“In the spring, with the statewide shutdown, everyone had to do the same thing, everyone was on the same page,” said Carrie Jacobs, a member of the Oklahoma City Public Schools board. “But when you piecemeal it like this and leave it up to each district there is pressure to open.”

The state board meets later this month, but multiple members told The Frontier they do not believe a statewide order will be discussed. 

“I always think local control is the best way to go,” said Jennifer Monies, a member of the state board. “But there may need to be some type of oversight because equity is always a concern.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister talks to attendees at a town hall in Muskogee on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who in March led the board to order the closure of school buildings, said she will pursue a requirement that each district submit its reopening plan for state approval, similar to what was required in the spring with the move to distance learning. 

“It was so new,” Hofmeister said about COVID-19 in March. “But (since then) we’ve had much more data and scientific literature about how it transmits and we are able to respond to that.

“We weren’t afraid to do what was needed to protect our students and staff in the spring and I’m not afraid to do what’s needed now. But it has to be something that correlates and responds to the current data and the current information.” 

The reopening of schools has become a political flashpoint recently as President Donald Trump threatened to withhold funding for schools that do not open on time. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed a voucher-like system for families if their local school building is not open.

“Let the families take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to reopen,” DeVos said in a television interview last week

Federal funding accounts for a small part of many school budgets and is mostly allocated based on poverty rates, making the withholding of federal funds highly unlikely. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt said the decision to reopen should be left to the state Department of Education and local districts. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a media conference at the state Capitol on June 30, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

“We want our schools to start in the fall,” Stitt said last week. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has encouraged schools to do all they can to start the new year with in-person learning.

Severe symptoms and death have not been widely found in infected children, but the risk remains. 

Last week, the state Department of Health announced Oklahoma’s first COVID-19 related pediatric death.

Asymptomatic children could also infect teachers and staff, or bring the virus home. 

Dozens of schools have already announced plans to offer a hybrid of virtual and in person learning, or have put in place a strategy for closing buildings if an outbreak is detected. 

Many school districts, including Oklahoma City, Edmond and Tulsa, have said all students will be given the option of attending school online. 

“It’s open to any student who wants to take advantage of an opportunity to take all of their courses virtually,” said Danielle Neves, deputy chief of academics at Tulsa schools. 

The state Department of Education has recommended that school districts follow CDC guidance for reopening, which says schools should not reopen unless they can screen students and staff upon arrival.

In a 74-page document of suggested guidelines for schools, the state Department of Education said schools should pay attention to the potential for poor air circulation, allow for more time to wash hands during restroom breaks and space desks at least six feet apart. 

“Cafeterias, auditoriums and hallways crowded with students should not be the norm during this health crisis,” the department’s guidelines state. 

The state Department of Education also strongly recommends that masks be used in schools. 

“Everyone needs to be wearing a mask,” Hofmeister said.

But schools will likely have to juggle health requirements with the special accommodations often needed in a school setting.

Aaron Todd, who will teach social studies at Northwest Classen High School this year, is partially deaf and said masked students would prevent him from reading lips and interpreting facial expressions. 

“Masks also muffle sound, which is especially problematic in settings where there is excessive background noise,” Todd said. 

“If face coverings are required, clear face shields would be the most ideal alternative as they allow the full face to be visible as well as the free flow of sound. Otherwise, masks with a clear material over the mouth area would be a considerable step up from what is readily available.”

Altering schedules and putting in place social distancing guidelines could also create unique challenges for teachers in a non traditional setting. 

Khrista Meyer teaches at an Oklahoma City hospital through the district’s extended education services program, which includes a classroom of students who are staying at the hospital.  

“I have no idea how we are going to make it work,” said Meyer, referring to distancing students, which can number as many as 14 in a small room at the hospital. 

Hofmeister said the most important thing for educators and families may be a willingness to be flexible and to adapt.  

“School is going to be different, it is going to look different, it is going to feel different,” Hofmeister said. “I think it is hard to imagine that for those who are still thinking about what school was like on March 12, the last time they were there in person.”