One after another, parents told the Deer Creek school board during a meeting Monday evening they wanted their children back in school five days a week as quickly as possible. Digital learning had caused grades to slip, social skills were being neglected and the COVID-19 risk to students was minimal, parents claimed.
Also addressing the board was Jena Nelson, a Deer Creek Middle School teacher and Oklahoma’s current teacher of the year, who implored the board not to make a hasty decision and to keep student and teacher safety in mind when deciding when to return to full in-person learning.
“We all want the same thing, we want our kids back in school with teachers who love them,” Nelson said. “But we cannot rush to make decisions on our emotions … or tried within the court of Facebook law.”
As Nelson returned to her seat, several parents in the audience booed and shouted at her.
School districts across Oklahoma continue to weight decisions about in-person learning as the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate remains one of the highest in the nation.
School administrators are also feeling increasing pressure from parents to fully reopen schools and allow sports teams to practice and play as normal.
In Edmond, where students attend school in-person just two days a week, parents gathered at the district administration building last week to protest against the blended learning model and to urge administrators to no longer require masks.
“Five days a week, no masks,” they shouted as they marched around the building.
Like Edmond, Deer Creek students have been in classrooms just two days a week. The board voted Monday to continue with the current plan after some of its members engaged in arguments with parents in the crowd.
In the rural Wynnewood school district, superintendent Tim Simpson recently apologized for ordering the quarantine of the high school softball team after parents complained.
I “took the decision out of our parents’ hands,” Simpson wrote on the district’s Facebook page.
The district originally told parents to make their own decisions on whether to send a child to school if they had been in contact with a person who tested positive.
But after the state Department of Education’s general counsel issued a letter to the district disputing that policy Wynnewood now requires students to quarantine after contact with a person with a known case of COVID-19.
At this week’s Deer Creek school board meeting, some parents argued children have a low risk of contracting the virus or developing severe symptoms.
Children under the age of 17 make up 10 percent of all confirmed cases nationally, according to data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In Oklahoma, children make up 11.3 percent of all cases.
“This data … underscores the urgent need to control the virus in our communities before our schools and businesses can safely reopen,” said Dr. Savannah Stump, a pediatrician, parent of two Deer Creek students and member of the Oklahoma State Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.
Nelson, the state teacher of the year, said more needs to be considered than just he risk to students.
“Even if it’s true that kids have a lower risk they are still taught by adults,” Nelson told The Frontier. “Look at the median age for teachers (in Oklahoma), they are on the upper end. And then you start adding in teachers with underlying health issues and we have a big risk.”
Nelson worries a rush to return could result in a loss of many teachers at a time when the need for more educators is growing.
The state Board of Education has already approved 1,285 emergency teaching certificates this school year, more than double the number requested by school districts at this point last school year.
More than 200 school districts have reported cases of COVID-19, according to KOSU, which is tracking cases in public schools.
Health officials said the reopening of schools has contributed to the state’s recent rise.
“It’s mostly due to school reopening, universities are the main factor, we’ve also had some outbreaks in different congregate facilities,” like prisons, said interim Health Commissioner Lance Frye.
The Frontier is a nonprofit corporation operated by The Frontier Media Group Inc.