Tahlequah Public Schools last week announced last Friday it would switch to online only classes through Thanksgiving after rising COVID-19 cases put Cherokee County in the red zone. But one board member wanted to shutter campuses until Jan. 5.

Chrissi Nimmo suggested the board immediately announce the cancellation of in-person classes until the winter break as a courtesy to parents. She was concerned that parents would have to scramble to find child care if the school is forced to cancel classes in December, and other board members recognized that would likely happen.

“Numbers are not going down. We’re going to go back and have Thanksgiving dinners, people aren’t likely to socially distance, and numbers are going to skyrocket. It is more likely that we’ll have to close a site between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It would be better to make that decision now so they will have time to prepare,” said Nimmo.

According to Superintendent Leon Ashlock, there has been an uptick in coronavirus cases among both students and staff since the last school board meeting. In the past month, 12 students and three staff members have come down with the virus, while 187 students and 18 faculty are quarantined. Eight of the faculty are at Greenwood Elementary.

Oklahoma Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Chuck Pack noted there are pros and cons both for staying open and shutting down in-person classes, but he said the pros of the latter outnumber the cons. The most obvious advantage is that it improves the health of the school. He added it is harmful to the mental health of teachers and students, not knowing whether they are going to get the virus.

On the flip side, he and others agreed it is more difficult to teach online.

“It is harder to teach online, but it is necessary. That’s the world we live in,” said Pack.

Ashlock acknowledged teachers are split on the issue, but more elementary school teachers prefer in-person instruction, whereas more high school teachers would prefer to teach online. He also said 70 percent of parents have chosen to send their children to school, and he thinks that despite rising COVID numbers, a similar percentage of parents would continue to vote to keep their children in school.

“A single mom may not have anyone to look after her kids. We waited for a red designation, and we can shut down and wait for things to get better, but they are probably going to get worse,” he said.

The board sided with Ashlock, who said they could reevaluate the situation in December after having proposed three options: return after Thanksgiving; return after Christmas break; or simply follow the color-coded map designations, taking it day by day.

A major concern among the board members is whether TPS has enough substitute teachers to cover for the staff who have been affected, and who will be affected by the coronavirus.

“Do we have enough staff to do it? If they get sick, we could plug someone else in, but that’s not a good message to send, either,” Ashlock said.

The superintendent argued that if TPS waits until the county goes orange before resuming in-person classes, they may be waiting a long time. Board member Lorraine Walker, a retired teacher, suggested that TPS didn’t have to wait to return to orange before resuming in-person classes.

“I think we need to tie our decision to our specific situation, such as how many teachers we have available to teach. We should go online until Thanksgiving, but we should come back in December, even if we only get in a few weeks," she said.

Board member Shaun Shepherd teleconferenced into the meeting and suggested waiting to announce whether to go online.

“Let’s decide at Thanksgiving at a moment’s notice. I would be more in favor of waiting. If it’s that bad, and we have faculty and students who are sick, we can roll with it and with a phone call say that school’s not resuming,” he said.

What's next

The next TPS Board of Education meeting will be Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. in the conference room, which will also be teleconferenced.

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