Oklahoma students to resume classes April 6 with distance learning

Michael Smith
A screen grab from Wednesday’s special called meeting of the Oklahoma State Board of Education. A 10-person limit on public gatherings due to COVID-19 forced several board members to teleconference in to meet a quorum.

School districts across Oklahoma will have to develop distance learning methods in order to finish the school year. The Oklahoma State Board of Education on Wednesday voted to keep classrooms closed and approved various waivers to give districts the ability to develop plans best suited for their respective students and staff.

With confirmed cases of COVID-19 spreading across Oklahoma and education officials trying to complete the 2019-2020 school year with unprecedented challenges, modified classes across the state are still expected to resume without classrooms on April 6.

Four of the board members attended via teleconferencing while two others joined Oklahoma State Department of Education Superintendent Joy Hofmeister in the Oklahoma City boardroom. A video of the meeting was streamed live on the board’s Facebook page and watched by more than 15,600 viewers.

A level of autonomy is now being given to local administrators to get the widely varied districts across the state on track to complete the school year in May. Districts, principals, and teachers will ultimately be responsible for developing and implementing local plans that must be approved by OSDE.

State officials have developed distance learning resources that can be implemented quickly. While those resources are expected to be available on the department’s website in the coming days, districts are also allowed to independently develop unique plans to address local issues like technology, internet access, special education and others.

Hofmeister said she has been holding virtual meetings in recent weeks with an advisory group of school superintendents on a regular basis, including a recent call with nearly 1,200 district leaders from across the state.

“They are sharing questions, ideas. We are keeping them alerted to decisions that could be coming, so they could have advanced time,” Hofmeister said.

A major concern among board members is reliable access to technology or internet access to complete distance learning online.

“I think that as we talk about distance learning, it’s really important that we acknowledge that distance learning does not mean that it is technology-based or online because that is an equity gap across our state,” said board member Carlisha Bradley.

“We know that we serve many students who do not have access, so there is a unique burden on several of our districts to deliver services in a different way,” she said.

Some of the waivers approved by the board on Wednesday eased some restrictions on certain funds to help districts fill gaps while developing distance education plans. For instance, certain funds tied specifically to a district’s textbooks can now be used to help implement distance learning but cannot be used for building improvements. Another waiver loosened library requirements so personnel can be utilized elsewhere.

Other state resources being tapped to educate Oklahoma’s nearly 700,000 students is the public television network overseen by the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority. Hofmeister hopes to find relevant television programming that can be broadcast to students’ homes using OETA’s 11 broadcast towers to reach students and teachers.

Surveys sent to district administrators across the state on Tuesday are due back to state education officials tomorrow morning and expected to help state education officials better understand the resources available to districts. “It is asking for a very broad overview of ‘what do you have now, what do you need,’ asking what schools would do with technology and internet access,’” Hofmeister said.