OKLAHOMA CITY — The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to shutter schools for the rest of the school year, ordering districts across the state to develop and release distanced-based learning lessons starting April 6.

Schools now will remain closed through May 15 and in-person instruction is banned in an effort to protect students and communities from the spreading COVID-19 outbreak. The board noted it could come back and re-evaluate that decision in the coming weeks if the situation changes.

Until then, state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said it is critical that students keep learning and growing. Education officials must make sure children don’t lose ground in the interim, she said.

Some Oklahomans, though, have questioned why the state couldn’t wait a few weeks longer to take such unprecedented steps, she said.

Districts need advanced notice in order to develop meaningful, robust programs and figure out how to reach all students, she said.

Board member Carlisha Bradley said educators will have to think how to innovate in special ways.

The board said the distance-learning model likely will involve technology-based and online learning options.

But some districts will face a unique burden to deliver services using the internet because “there is an equity gap across our state,” Bradley said.

Some families can’t afford or don’t have internet access at home, she said.

“Though this is a very difficult decision to make, health is the top priority,” she said. “But we do need to think about the students who do not have access” and parents who need additional support from communities.

For the first time in history, the board conducted its meeting virtually and limited the Oklahoma City meeting room to just 10 people in an attempt to encourage social distancing. Four board members attended the meeting remotely, and at one point nearly 15,900 people watched through a Facebook feed.

Board members said they’ve heard from students who are devastated by not being able to finish out the school year in person and from parents struggling to balance work, child care and educating their children from home.

Hofmeister said it won’t be easy, but it will “100 percent” be worth the struggle.

On Wednesday, statewide cases totaled 164 with five deaths. Gov. Kevin Stitt has banned gatherings of 10 or more

But Byron Schlomach, director of the Oklahoma-based 1889 Institute think tank, and said the closure is “a gross overreaction to the coronavirus situation."

“Even in the best of times and circumstances, suddenly shifting every student in the state from traditional classrooms to online distance learning will have negative educational consequences,” he said. “This in addition to the economic burden on two-earning families forced to completely reorder their lives with schools closed.”

He believes many leaders have responded excessively to worst-case scenarios presented by well-intended health experts with no training or sense of proportion in “weighing the collateral damage of shutting down our economy versus targeting resources to protect the truly vulnerable.

“We say reopen the schools and stop the madness,” Schlomach said. “Only truly vulnerable students and staff should stay home.”

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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