The shutdown of Oklahoma’s public school system has separated thousands of students from therapy and counseling services, disrupted the routine of medication management from a school nurse – often the only medical professional in a student’s life – and cut off a steady meal supply.
Closing schools in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus has left classrooms dormant as teacher-led learning has come to a halt for more than 700,000 students.
But while the state has already received permission to skip end of the year tests and district leaders have been told not to worry about this year’s school report card, the other important functions of a school are not as easy to dismiss.
“There are kids that depend on school as their stability and knowing that stability has been taken from them and there is no end in sight, I worry about what that could do to some kids,” said Shari Gateley, an assistant principal at Irving Middle School in Norman.
Most schools were scheduled to return from spring break on Monday and the days and weeks that follow often see an increase in child abuse cases, according to the National Children’s Advocacy Center.
“The weeks after spring break a lot of times you see the highest amount of DHS calls,” said Hayley Twyman Brack, a licensed professional counselor at Edmond Counseling & Professional Development. “Over summer breaks and school breaks kids are more likely to experience violence in the home. Now that the kids are at home and not at schools we wonder how difficult it is for them to tell us what is going on.”
Gateley said she is also worried about what an economic downturn and a reduced state budget could mean for schools in the years to come, especially as gains were starting to be made in responding to student trauma and mental health.
“Our state superintendent has already asked for additional funding to increase counselors in schools because that has been a big need. But will those extra funds be there after all this?” Gateley said. “How does this pandemic build on what was already a need? I think too about the toll it is going to take on teachers who already deal with secondary trauma, whose spouses may have just lost a job.”
Schools are also an important partner in medication management and many districts across the state are working with parents during the closure to retrieve medicine and insulin that is stored at the school.
In addition to managing medication, nurses also help schools tackle growing health concerns and offer preventative care.
Keema Kinchen, a school nurse in Spencer, said a recent screening revealed high rates of elevated blood pressure in more than half of her high school students.
“With the help of the PE teacher we have been doing education classes to educate students on healthy habits and how to create a food diary,” Kinchen said.
Patty Curry, a school nurse of 30 years in Oklahoma City, said school screenings can be critical.
“I caught two hearing losses in third graders through general screenings,” Curry said.
Thousands of students take part in speech therapy sessions at school that help with articulation, tongue placement and language comprehension.
“When a student is sick or out for even just a week sometimes we can tell a regression,”said Amanda Hardaway, a speech language pathologist who works in five schools in central Oklahoma.
“With this long of a time off I do worry about major regressions.”
More than 16 percent of Oklahoma students rely on special education services and nearly one in 10 are classified as bilingual, requiring some additional English language training, according to the state Department of Education.
With nearly a quarter of all children in the state struggling with food insecurity, school meals of lunch and breakfast are vital for many students.
Student hunger is so great that the state has aggressively stepped up its summer feeding program in recent years and many schools in low-income neighborhoods already work to provide students with snacks for the weekend.
With the current school closure likely to last for several weeks, if not the remainder of the school year, schools are launching mobile meal programs or setting up grab-and-go sites.
“We know that some kids will not have access to nutritious meals if they do not attend school,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.
Beyond meals, special education services and health care, schools also serve as a trusted source of information in many communities.
Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South schools, an Oklahoma City charter school system that serves a large population of Hispanic families, said school closures have meant a disruption of communication.
“For the population we serve, a lot of information, just about life in general, comes from our teachers, our principals and our schools,” Brewster said. “One of my staff members reminded me that our parents are waiting to hear from us and it’s not about whether we are going to have school, it’s whether we are going to be ok.”