TULSA — After two meetings and nine hours of questions, comments, debate and discussion, Tulsa Public Schools’ board of education has voted to send its students back to the classroom.
In the wee hours of Oct. 14, the board voted 5-2 to have pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students resume in-person instruction four days per week starting Nov. 9, followed by first, second and third graders one week later. Wednesdays will remain a distance learning day.
A separate motion passed 4-3 to send older elementary school students back in person on Nov. 30, pending a regular review of COVID-19 data within the district’s buildings and attendance area.
On Oct. 19, the board voted 6-1 to send its secondary students back in person on Jan. 4, 2021. Until then, all middle school, junior high and high school students will remain in distance learning.
With studies showing children older than 10 transmitting the virus at similar rates to adults, the board initially delayed making a decision about older students in an effort to gather additional research.
“I feel like maybe it offers a little bit more consistency for everyone involved,” board member Shawna Keller said. “I feel like a lot of our teachers and a lot of our kids have gotten into a rhythm in distance learning, especially at the secondary level.”
The state’s second largest traditional public school district has been in distance learning since spring when the state Department of Education ordered the suspension of in-person classes due to COVID-19.
According to the Tulsa City-County Health Department, Tulsa County has 2,368 active cases as of Oct. 18.
“I am confident that we can bring students back reasonably safe in a way that has safety practices in place,” TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist said at the Oct. 14 board meeting. “There are huge risks if we don’t and therein lies the dilemma.”
Masks will be required for all staff and students. Parents will have the option to keep their students in distance learning. However, unlike the first quarter, it will rely more on recorded lessons rather than live Zoom calls.
A hybrid model recommended by Gist that would have students on campus two days per week and in distance learning three days a week was rejected in part due to concerns that it would create an unsustainable workload for teachers, as well as concerns that it would create additional exposure points for students and staff.
The board’s vote to send elementary school staff and students back in person came just hours after Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa County Health Department, said at a municipal press conference that school districts are currently one of the county’s largest sources of COVID-19 spread. According to Dart, Tulsa County’s 13 other school districts, which are all hosting in-person classes, account for about 500 cases as of Oct. 13.
Dart’s remarks were quoted by several of the 11 people who spoke up during the public comment period against reopening schools in person, including Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President-Elect Shawna Mott-Wright.
The teachers’ union polled more than 1,100 certified TPS employees about instruction options for the second quarter and more than 64 percent of respondents said they were not comfortable with starting in-person instruction come November.
“Several, and I do mean several, teachers have seriously inquired about how to go about resigning or early retirement,” she said, her voice breaking. “Their hearts are broken and so is mine. As one teacher put it to me on the phone today: ‘Beats being dead or having health issues. Beats bringing something like COVID home to my kids and parents.’”