Oklahoma school districts are nearing time to welcome students back for classes. The pressure is building for students to return to the classroom, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a reevaluation of teaching methods and how to keep students, staff and teachers safe. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister discussed the critical issues involved and how Oklahoma schools are planning to operate during the fall with KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. And joining us today is Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. It's good having you with us.
Joy Hofmeister: Thank you, Dick and Shawn, it's very good to be with you.
Dick Pryor: School districts around the state are preparing to start classes again. Right up front, what is the state's policy on how schools are supposed to operate this fall?
Joy Hofmeister: Well, schools are to operate in very close coordination with their local health departments. The State Department of Education gave very comprehensive guidance to our districts in the first part of June. That is actually undergoing a revision and will soon be released with new information that needs to be included. But just recently, at the end of July, we put forward to the districts through the State Board of Education, a series of safety protocols that will be able to respond to the different levels of spread. That is based on the color-coded COVID map from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Shawn Ashley: At its most recent meeting, the State Board of Education changed the State Department of Education's proposed requirements for the start of the upcoming school year to a series of suggestions or, as you mentioned, protocols. What minimum standards, if any, do school districts have to abide by as they return to instruction?
Joy Hofmeister: Well, there are minimum standards that they set, but there isn't a state level of minimum standards that are requirements. I believe there should be a state response to a state level public health crisis. However, what the state board did approve was a very strong set of detailed safety protocols that graduate in their response to the virus as it escalates from green, yellow, orange and red levels that we believe are also quite strong. And districts are already showing that they are following that and paying close attention now to the Health Department's map.
Shawn Ashley: What obligation does the school district have to disclose the positive test among its staff or its students?
Joy Hofmeister: There is certainly a willingness to do that. We have our attorneys working with the State Health Department’s attorneys. I'm sure that we will be able to land in a place where we have swift information being shared. Right now, it's dependent upon the person who has tested positive to disclose that. And as soon as that is disclosed, then there is contact tracing and notification that goes out.
Shawn Ashley: Will the State Department of Education be monitoring COVID-19 cases within districts. And what will the department do with that information?
Joy Hofmeister: Well, definitely we will be monitoring that and do, as well as monitoring community transmission and differentiating between community transmission and institutional transmission. Obviously, that would mean that it's perhaps your elevated spread on the heat map is demonstrated through a prison outbreak, which is institutional transmission. So, we are working in a very close, coordinated way with the State Health Department and we have at least once a week, but often it has been many more times in the week met. And we work with physicians, epidemiologists and various scientists, pediatricians, as well, who are experts and are all giving their input as we then take that input and turn that back to the districts so that they are able to be advised in real time.
Dick Pryor: Ten out of the 15 largest school districts in the United States are starting the fall semester with online learning only. Just one is providing the option of in-person instruction. Three will offer a hybrid and one has yet to announce its plan. How does that mix break down in Oklahoma?
Joy Hofmeister: Well, I think we will see our districts respond to what they are seeing in real time. Of course, I keep saying that, but that's that is how we have to operate right now. The larger the district, you will see them make decisions that are based ahead of the opening. And they are so large that they're not going to be able to just switch and pivot to a different delivery model if it's warranted the week it's warranted, they're going to have to make decisions in advance. So, I do think you have right now, our two largest districts have already said they are not coming back for in-person learning because of the counties they live, where they are experiencing a surge, having, for example, forty thousand students and staff in your district at the start of the school year is only going to accelerate the spread in that county and in that community. So, we definitely see those that are in less densely-populated areas where there is not as great a spread who are planning to open with in-person learning. But I would like to say that every district superintendent I have talked to, and we talk regularly, we are hearing them say they want in-person learning. It's just simply too risky in certain counties.
Dick Pryor: Young people are not immune from carrying, spreading and dying from this novel coronavirus. There is evolving and competing research that shows how the virus affects children. It depends on many factors, including locale and age group. As an example, a study in South Korea shows children under 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, but 10 to 19 year-olds are more likely to spread it than adults. Are schools varying their plans by age group and looking at science as they determine how to pivot?
Dick Pryor: Well, that is how we develop the guidance. So, you will see that at age 10 or fourth grade, we did shift some of the protocol requiring a mask at that age and in certain elevated areas of transmission all students being required to wear a mask. However, we also know that science is still investigating. This is only six months old. We are very cognizant of the fact that to make plans today, we can't do that with the certainty that children are fully protected based on what we know so far. We have to keep in the back of our minds that we're going to find out more. We're going to learn more from science and data and evidence. And I think that is weighing heavily on the minds of not just our families, but all of those who serve in school districts and are making these tough choices.
Shawn Ashley: You mentioned earlier that there are differences in the plans of the various school districts as they prepare for the beginning of school. A lot of that depends on where they live, the level of the outbreak there. But viruses, of course, know no boundaries. How concerned are you in the end that this patchwork approach might fail?
Joy Hofmeister: Well, what we have right now is a patchwork approach, and I don't think that works. But when you have a coordinated effort that says we will respond to the virus and we don't have to have the exact same response to it, if it's not accelerated, if it's stabilized and we have vetted what we proposed with that green lowest level of transmission with our state epidemiologist at the time, that, you know, it is good to have a goal where it could only be a recommendation, but yet, of course, advised, but even those younger children perhaps could remove their masks when they were in their own classrooms, staying with their own cohort. These are decisions that we are wrestling with and certainly I believe that you've hit on a really important point, Shawn. Even within a county, you know, when someone says as an excuse, well, that's not happening here, it's happening in their neighbor, in neighboring, you know, community or the charity over it. It does all affect us when we all drive to the same markets or those faith communities as well.
We are a small state when it comes to the way we are all coming together, especially in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. And you see increased spread. So, we also know that this is something that we have to balance between the need for our children to have a strong, robust, meaningful education…we can't lose any more time for them to close learning gaps and continue to learn and acquire new academic skills for their own, their own educational trajectory. However, it is still top of mind and our first priority to have our students and those who serve in schools healthy and to ensure the safety and well-being to the very best of our ability.
Dick Pryor: Six Major League Baseball teams had games postponed over the weekend because of COVID-19 spread. Major League Baseball deals with adults in controlled environments and has plenty of money to take extensive safety precautions. If Major League Baseball teams can't control the spread how, realistically, effective can schools be expected to be?
Joy Hofmeister: OK. So, here's the deal, right? Yeah, nobody wants to be the Marlins right now. And I am with you. We're going to learn a lot about the fate of this bubble that they have created and how effective that is. But we also can learn from other countries that did start school. Israel is used and they did begin by using a capsule, is what they called it, in the way they kept students together. Others are thinking about those cohorts and not allowing students to move out of their cohorts.
But the difference is when those schools opened, they already brought their cases down to the baseline level where community transmission was under control. That's not the case right now in Oklahoma everywhere. We want to see this change. And the only way it changes is if the whole community before school starts to change their behavior and wear masks, wash their hands and take seriously the need to socially distance in their own personal lives. That is the only way that we can give our kids a fighting chance at in-person learning. And when districts are having to make that call weeks in advance, they're going to need to see some indication that this can come down. There is a way to crush the virus. And we have to see all of Oklahomans taking it seriously and understanding the role they play and how it affects kids and those who serve in schools.
Dick Pryor: What happens if schools do in-person instruction or extracurricular activities and an outbreak occurs?
Joy Hofmeister: All right. So basically, you're going to quarantine those who have been exposed, and if that happens enough times, you end up having a school closure. That is not something that we think is farfetched either. It's not about sending home the one child who is ill. It is about contact tracing and reducing the spread of the virus within the community, which is going to require and mean that in an elementary classroom, if a teacher is positive or a student is positive, then that whole class is going to be quarantined for 14 days. And that is going to happen, I'm afraid, in multiple classrooms.
If that happens at the same time, enough times, a school cannot stay open or we don't have the subs, substitute teachers to be able to fill those roles. And so these are all practical aspects of running school, the school operation component that whether we want to be there or not, if we don't have control of transmission, we are not going to be able to stay open even if those doors do open at the start of the school year like we all want. So, again, I am not saying today that this is a time where we're going to see all districts closing like last March. But if we continue to see the spread increase, those are signals to districts of how they're going to have to start that school year with a virtual option, I'm afraid.
Shawn Ashley: At what point would the State Department of Education ask the state board to end in-person instruction on a statewide basis and go back to virtual education only like you did in March?
Joy Hofmeister: I'm not sure yet if that is even going to be necessary because of the protocol we put out. Our districts are already telling us that they are adopting that to follow it. And we will certainly be revising as needed any guidance that comes from the department or the board. So, the answer is already built in. They can see in those set of protocols we did address when extracurricular activity needs to stop, when buildings and facility use needs to end, when performances need to be curtailed and there should not even outdoors be gatherings for spectator sports.
So, what I do know is Oklahomans and our schools, they want specificity. And this is very important for them to have that very detailed guidance that helps them with those decisions are going to be making. And again, they may need to make those a little sooner than what those set of protocols describe based on their conversations and their information with the public health local officials. And, of course, we would step in as well if there is the need to close the school down because of advanced information that the State Department of Health gives us. So, again, this is…I hope I'm effectively describing constant communication step by step. And we may even be doing this not just week by week with our districts, but back in March, we were doing Zoom calls with up to eleven hundred on them three times a week with districts.
Dick Pryor: Superintendent Hofmeister, the reality is there is a lot we don't know about how this virus affects children and how they may spread the virus to others. Yet, there is a strong push - not from parents, educators and medical experts - to get children back in school and see what happens, which essentially puts students in in the middle of this. How do you make student-centered decisions in a highly politicized environment?
Joy Hofmeister: Well, it can't be politically charged. I reject that. And we're not going to do that. I am very, very concerned that we not put children or teachers and those who serve in schools in jeopardy for any reason. We've also had this very same board who wasn't afraid to say we're closing down because we don't know enough and we need more information like they did in this in the time of last spring. So, it's not “never say never,” you know, and nothing's off the table, ever. But I do think we have to also see that family members want some level of confidence before they're willing to send their children into a school. They have to know “what will those safety protocols be?” And we're seeing those very important conversations happening all across the state with local school boards. That's appropriate. We've at least provided a set of guidelines for them to consider. But I still think there will come a time where we will have to have a uniform adoption of a mask mandate in school. It's a public place. Yes. But just like a public hospital, they require masks. We will require masks at some point. I have a lot of confidence that that's just going to be something that is inevitable. But where we were in July, we were just not able to be that specific yet with our board. Not with me, I just want to clarify that.
Shawn Ashley: Governor Stitt announced he is spending 10 million dollars from the federal CARES Act to purchase PPE for schools. He also directed the Department of Health to work with your agency, the State Department of Education, to create a plan for monthly COVID-19 testing of every teacher in the state. But in his executive order, it's optional for teachers. What can or will the State Department of Education do to ensure that teachers are regularly tested? And what about staff and students?
Joy Hofmeister: Yeah. So that is in the executive order. It is voluntary and it is not something that is required of anyone. But being made available could be a real help if someone wants to take advantage of that. We just began talking with the Department of Health on how to surveil and learn more about the virus and the spread to then better inform action. I am very interested in that. If we have the capacity to have some who voluntarily give, perhaps not the test on determining if you have it or don't, but if you have antibodies. I think there's some value in that kind of a study. And this is something that we think would assist science as science is still investigating.
But yes, we're relieved that this is something that is voluntary and not in any way a requirement. Also, having a test once a month is not really effective. All it does is tell someone that they have it that day. They may get it the next day after they were tested and still show positive later. But they will have perhaps a false sense of confidence. So, unless we are to, we definitely need more testing. But I would I would argue also most important thing is that we can get our tests back within 72 hours. That's the key. That's where we're really going to continue focusing. And I am encouraged that this is something that the governor's office has expressed interest in trying to solve, as we describe that as a key piece in being able to keep schools open for those who are able to open at the beginning of school.
Dick Pryor: We have talked on this program about the future of common education, moving away from the traditional August to May format based on the agrarian calendar, more online, more experiential learning. As school districts and the State Department of Education learn what works and what doesn't work during this pandemic. Do you think these responses that we're learning and evolving every day will be the start of making some of those changes?
Joy Hofmeister: You know, Dick, I think you're right. The virus and the need to close schools last spring served as a pull start to the digital age in many communities in Oklahoma in schools. Where we had just an interest, but it wasn't on the front burner, if you will, to close that digital divide in education. And this has made it a pressing issue, one where there is a lot of motivation to accomplish, but you bring up a piece here that I think is really important, a reexamining of the timeline of how we do school, when we do school, how we do it. I don't believe that we should ever be in any way discounting the power of face-to-face interaction with a teacher and a student. That is something that is, we already know, extremely effective. And it also is part of that building, the engagement and that bond that is important for learning.
But I do think there's a wonderful opportunity down the road for us to learn through this what works, what doesn't work, how we need to improve and adjust, where we come out on the other side with more of our schools integrated with this more blended model where students who are ready to go far more at a higher and at a quicker pace are able to be unleashed and not held back. More of an individualized approach. And particularly for those who have learning struggles or those who have gaps in certain, certain skills that can stay and park and build those skills. We really have been teaching in some ways to the group. And unless someone is pulled out to be and gifted and talented or they're identified in special education services there's a lot in that that center area that have just been less differentiated in the way we approach learning. And so, I think the personalized, individualized learning pathways is something that's going to emerge from what we are experiencing right now and wrestling with not just in Oklahoma, but all over the country. And I do think that in the end, we will have a much better personalized. delivery of education for Oklahoma kids.
Dick Pryor: State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, there are many difficult decisions that must be made during this unprecedented time. Thank you for joining us and good luck to you and the education community across the state this fall.
Joy Hofmeister: Thank you. And it's so good to be with you.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. You can hear more of this conversation online at kgou.org. If you have questions, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.