Tulsa Public Schools students could be one step closer to returning to the classroom.
"We will be adding a special meeting to the calendar on February 16th that will allow for discussion and voting regarding students returning to in-person learning on February 22nd," said President Stacey Wooley at a Monday board meeting.
"While it should not be taken as a sign of a decision in any way, or a sign that we agree about a recommendation, Vice President [Jania] Wester and I have agreed to add an agenda item to the discussion on the 16th that would allow us to potentially vote to return students the 22nd," Wooley explained.
The announcement came the same day TPS Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist said at a press conference she believed the district could return to in-person learning by the end of the month. Gist told the board Monday she was not yet making a formal recommendation, but that she was leaning toward doing so.
"I certainly recognize that the board does not always agree with my recommendations, so it's not definitive -- it's up to the board to make those decisions," Gist said.
Gist said her potential recommendation for such a return would be based on local COVID-19 data and input from public health professionals.
"We are now in what is currently the longest sustained decline in infection rate since the pandemic began," Gist said. "I'd like to believe that that is Tulsans doing their part, that we have the holidays behind us, that we are doing what we need to do -- not everyone, but enough to see this consistent decline in infection rates."
In her Monday morning remarks, Gist acknowledged a prolonged pressure campaign by Gov. Kevin Stitt to have TPS offer an option for in-person learning for any students or families who choose it, but said that did not enter into her decision-making process.
In a lengthy statement posted to her Facebook page on Monday afternoon, Gist labeled Stitt a "bully" who has practiced "failed leadership" over the course of the pandemic, noting, among other things, the governor's rejection of advice from the Trump administration's White House coronavirus task force.
"We live in a state that has had one of the highest COVID rates in the entire world. Our governor has done very little to address that and has, in fact, behaved in ways that exacerbated the work of health professionals. Now, rather than owning that situation and focusing on the efforts to address it, he wants to point in our direction. He is preying on the very real and understandable fear, frustration, and anger of our families and deflecting from what he has done to cause the situation," Gist's statement reads in part.
In response, Stitt communications chief Charlie Hannema said, "The governor’s number one priority will always be to put students first. Tulsa’s students deserve better than name-calling and excuses from their superintendent, they deserve the same option to go to school in person that kids have in almost every other district in Oklahoma.”
Carly Atchison, director of strategic communications at the governor's office, also noted that Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters sent an email to Gist in November, which Atchison said runs counter to Gist's claim in her statement that Stitt "never once reached out to us directly."
Gist reiterated to the board on Monday her consistent message that a return to in-person learning has long been her goal.
"We know how much it is needed," Gist said. "The stories that we hear both in conversations with people and the emails we receive, we know how much it is needed."
Under the district's current plan, students at all grade levels would be allowed to return to in-person instruction on March 22nd.