Everyone is eager for schools to offer more in-person classroom instruction, and with vaccinations becoming available for teachers and staff that goal is edging closer to reality. Coronavirus has not only forced schools, teachers, parents and students to adjust, but it has led to a re-examination of the future of education. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister discusses what lies ahead for Oklahoma schools with KGOU's Dick Pryor in Capitol Insider.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor and my guest is State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. Superintendent Hofmeister, it's good to have you back with us.
Joy Hofmeister: Oh, thank you so much. It's great to be with you.
Dick Pryor: On Monday, February 22nd, the State Department of Health will start allowing teachers and staff in pre-K through 12 schools to set up vaccination appointments that would make the COVID-19 vaccinations available to about 90,000 people. How quickly do you think teachers and staff will be able to welcome students back to school after the vaccination process begins?
Joy Hofmeister: You know, I think that this is really providing an additional layer of protection. We know that our schools, for the most part, have all been in person for the full year with, of course, disruption that comes with quarantining, et cetera, and wearing a mask and doing the things that our schools have been doing with social distancing, washing hands, that is also providing protection. So this is an added layer and we want our teachers and all school personnel to be vaccinated ASAP. It couldn't come soon enough and we are so grateful.
Dick Pryor: How high is the interest in vaccinations among teachers?
Joy Hofmeister: I think it is higher than other groups, but I am still certain that there will be some who are going to wait and see. And so we feel it's very important that we do talk about the efficacy at above 90 percent. And I do believe there is increased interest among teachers and school personnel as they have seen what comes from having many days and weeks out of their positions they love so much due to quarantine.
Dick Pryor: As you mentioned, regardless of whether teachers and staff receive vaccinations, mitigation measures are still essential under CDC guidelines for schools to open and remain open safely, masking physical distancing, handwashing, cleaning and ventilation, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine will be necessary at times, if not at all times. How well are schools that are open for in-person classes now doing at those mitigation measures?
Joy Hofmeister: You know, our schools have learned a lot and we do believe that the ability to socially distance has helped and the strict adherence to quarantining. Now, the CDC did change their guidance in December and we didn't have much time last fall to actually implement that, but this spring, with that shortened time of by day seven of an exposure, if an individual can test negative, they're able to shorten quarantine, but yet still wear a mask that full 14 days. Of course, we would say keep wearing that mask, not just for that period of time. But, it is working and we know through research within our state as well as outside of Oklahoma, we do see reduced transmission in schools because there is such - it is a controlled environment and one where we can do more to ensure that people are following those guidelines.
Dick Pryor: The CDC says in-person instruction should be prioritized over extracurricular activities where spread is higher. Are schools taking that seriously?
Joy Hofmeister: You know, this is a balancing act. It's not just as much that sports are something that we love in Oklahoma in the fall, in the winter or the spring. It's really more about the connection, the social emotional benefit. For some students it's the very reason they come to school and to remove and strip away all that we gain from athletics or a well-rounded education is something that our school leaders have to wrestle with as they think this through. They are taking steps to try to mitigate spread, of course, wrestling, indoor activities like basketball, where you would need to have a thinner crowd in order to prevent spread are measures that are on the top of mind of many of our public schools. Definitely. But we can always do better and we can't drop our guard. That's really our message right now. We can't allow for COVID fatigue to lull us into a place where we drop our guard, change our habits, and then give room for variants to spread and cause disruption that we really could have avoided.
Dick Pryor: That's a key point. The CDC's new guidance acknowledges schools can reopen or stay open in red zones, but that each school should consider the effectiveness of their community’s virus response in their decision making. How comfortable are you that communities are doing enough mitigation to enable students to return or stay in the classroom?
Joy Hofmeister: You know, it really depends on which community. We saw some communities take this very seriously. Their municipal leaders passed ordinances that really curtail the spread. And then we saw that some communities didn't believe in this or didn't really appreciate the seriousness of what happens when people then go into hospitals and are stressing the system and relatives who may be ill from something other than COVID are affected by a stretched hospital capacity. Took a little bit of a, I think, wake up for all communities to take it seriously. But at this point in time, I do believe all of Oklahomans get it and they are thinking about one another and want to do their part.
Dick Pryor: In his State of the State address, Governor Kevin Stitt brought up what he called “ghost students” and how the state education funding formula sends money to districts to educate students who don't attend school there. How does that part of the funding formula work? Help us here.
Joy Hofmeister: Sure. Well, first of all, “ghost students” don't exist. That is not really an accurate reflection of what in state statute has balanced in an agreement between schools as they divide the same amount of money in a given year between schools. How they can equitably handle the transition of a student from one to another school and not have a situation where suddenly schools find that they need to lay off teachers in September. So, there is a give and take in an arrangement that is quite equitable for our schools to be able to have stability in budgeting and extending contracts and I would say of all people in Oklahoma, school superintendents and their CFOs are very good at forecasting and anticipating growth or reduction and try to then set those contracts in a fashion that is also very reasonable. Keep in mind that our schools by law have to give notice to teachers if their contract is going to be extended in the spring before any state budget is even passed.
Dick Pryor: We've talked a lot about health and safety concerns because of COVID. What else is a concern for schools this semester and as you get ready to look ahead to the fall?
Joy Hofmeister: What we are thinking about right now is our students and any losses academically that they have experienced because of the disruption of COVID. We know that some of our schools that have stayed in distance learning longer had less disruption because of the stability of a set block of time where they would have virtual instruction. However, some of our districts, the majority of them that opened their doors from day one, have experienced a start and a stop and a change in instructional modality that shifts and is unpredictable.
And so, there are positives and negatives to either of these navigating attempts by districts responding to community transmission. That is, that is actually quite fluid as well. And when we think about all of this statewide, we think about our students’ needs, not just academically, but the whole child - social, emotional, mental health, physical health, hunger, homelessness, the stress that has been added to a family because of COVID and how that actually impacts children today and their academic future in the coming years. So, our plan is to set forward for Oklahomans, a framework of how we will restore any loss and rebound from this pandemic and use it as a springboard into where we want to be and where our kids deserve to go.
Dick Pryor: It's going to be a big job.
Joy Hofmeister: Absolutely, and it's not going to be one person's job. It is actually the team. And I would also argue the community, the community has a role to play in supporting our schools and students and families.
Dick Pryor: The State Board of Equalization has certified nine-point-six billion dollars for appropriation in the next fiscal year. However, about one-point-seven billion of that is one time money, so actually, the legislature may only be able to appropriate about eight billion for fiscal year 2022. What are you expecting in appropriations for education in the year ahead?
Joy Hofmeister: Well, we recognize that in the last budget year, our legislators had really a great task to try and provide the funding they did with great uncertainty. Yet, we also know the ability of our state to have a workforce that is ready, that is attractive to business, is going to depend on education and ultimately on individual students. Strong families make strong schools and strong communities.
And so, I think that our legislature is still very, very cognizant of that cycle and how important it is to keep our funding for students in a place that is building, because we will need that in order to have smaller class sizes, for example, which also means we have to hire more teachers. We need more of our counselors, licensed professional counselors, but also academic counselors that will help our students be ready for their next steps in learning after they graduate. So, a lot of work here that we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to supporting and further deepening the foundation that we will build in education and our legislators know this is a high return on investment and a critical one.
Dick Pryor: COVID-19 has caused a lot of people to reevaluate their methods and priorities. At this point, what do you think the coronavirus experience has taught about how education should look going forward?
Joy Hofmeister: I think education is going to be different. We are all going to be different. And I think that there will be elements to education that have been changed for good and for now on. Part of that will be the level of parent engagement that we have seen during the pandemic. Maybe parents didn't expect or even welcome as much, but they are tasked with in a virtual setting, for example. But what we do see is that parents are more involved than they were prior to COVID. And I think that's a good thing. We want to keep that moving and grow that. And then also, I think we will change the type of pacing that we do. Our students need to be able to have more of an individualized approach and one that also maybe blurs the lines from just the time and instead is looking at competencies. And if they are ready, let them go; if they need to stay and master something and park on that a little longer, I want our students to have that kind of opportunity. We have new ways of thinking that COVID has thrust us into when it comes to the delivery of education. And I think that we're all going to be a little bit more imaginative going forward and one where we will appreciate being together physically in ways that we may have not appreciated before.
Dick Pryor: State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, thank you for joining us.
Joy Hofmeister: Thank you so much. It's great to be with you, Dick.
Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, I’m Dick Pryor.