Tulsa Public Schools’ 39,000-plus students will not go back to their classrooms until at least November because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The TPS Board on Monday night approved 6–1 Superintendent Deborah Gist's recommendation to start the year Aug. 31 with nine weeks of distance learning.
Gist invited health experts to the largely virtual board meeting to share their knowledge about the coronavirus. Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart told board members he’s a big supporter of education.
"So, you know, it’s hard for me to sit here and tell you that from a risk perspective, being in the classroom when school starts, I think, is a risk that’s too great, one that we don’t want to take," Dart said.
OU Physicians pediatric infections disease specialist Dr. Kimberly Martin told the board while kids generally fare better than adults when they’re infected, there have still been cases of Oklahoma kids put on ventilators so they don’t die, and there’s no telling how kids sick with COVID will fare down the road.
"We could definitely have heart issues that develop, especially in patients that have these very severe, multi system inflammatory syndrome cases. We could have neurologic issues. We just don’t know the full scope of how pediatric patients — from a long-term standpoint — are going to be affected," Martin said.
Board member Suzanne Schreiber has four children, and all of them of school age attend TPS.
"I am not going to ask any teacher, support staff, parent to put themselves in an at-risk situation that if I had those circumstances that I would not put myself in personally," Schreiber said.
Generally, TPS teachers will be teaching from their school buildings because they’ll have access to more resources. Gist said there will be exceptions made for those who need them.
"But because of the square footage that we have in our buildings and without most of the children there, there’s actually plenty of space for us to be safe in those buildings," Gist said.
Deputy Superintendent Paula Shannon said given the odds of teachers getting sick and the normal difficulty in getting subs, distance learning makes the most sense.
"So, if we were to open school on Aug. 31 fully in person or in a hybrid model, my opinion as the deputy superintendent is that we wouldn’t last very long before we were facing critical staffing shortages and the need to close specific schools or all schools down again," Shannon said.
TPS officials said they will consider State Department of Education–recommended protocols when it comes to determining when to bring students back to school.
The district will distribute more than 10-thousand mobile hotspots and Chromebooks to economically disadvantaged students who don’t have internet access at home, and it will continue to offer grab-and-go meals.
Newly elected school board member Jerry Griffin was the lone vote against the distance learning plan, saying there isn't data to support a need for it and parents will struggle with keeping their kids on track with online learning.
"There’s not just 100 parents out there that are going to have problems, there’s a few thousand out there that are going to be problems. And I’m also confident that, if challenged, Dr. Gist and her staff would be able to come up with alternative solutions," Griffin said.
Griffin was the only school board member to attend Monday night's meeting in person at the Charles C. Mason Education Service Center. Prior to the vote on TPS' back-to-school plan, Griffin made a successful motion to table for two weeks approval of several vendors the district could use to obtain personal protective equipment for students, teachers and staff.
While the state of Oklahoma is working on an initiative to buy and distribute $10 million worth of PPE for schools, TPS officials said having contracts with vendors already approved by the board would let them restock when supplies are low without waiting for approval, a delay that could mean the difference between a vendor being able to fill an order and not.