Oklahoma school districts were challenged in the fall of 2020 to continue education while managing the risks of a pandemic. Several schools saw spikes in failure rates, gaps in attendance, and widened inequalities between white and minority students, according to several educators and a News 9 survey.
Districts and families chose whether to shift to virtual instruction, continue with in-person classes or a combination.
Christi Sturgeon, a longtime counselor at Broken Arrow High School, said connecting with students online instead of at school was a challenge.
“We’re getting creative. In my 23 years, I’ve never done anything like that before. So, it’s kind of exciting to me, even though its challenging,” Sturgeon said.
“I don’t’ know that there’s ever been a disruptive or as challenging an academic year as what we’re seeing,” said Ryan Walters, the Secretary of Education.
News 9 sent a survey to a dozen school districts in the Oklahoma City metro area and surrounding counties.
The seven districts that responded captured a variety of in-person, split, and virtual classes at the high school level. Despite the variety of instruction, each district that responded described an increase in failure rate among high school students.
Oklahoma City Public Schools
The metro area's largest school district was entirely virtual for most of the fall. Except for a few days on a split-schedule, high school students learned from home the entire semester.
The district rushed to prepare students for the transition by equipping each with an electronic device for instruction. For the first time, OKCPS became a one-to-one district, a milestone reached by offering a device to every student in the district.
After the first quarter of the fall semester, more than half of OKCPS high school students had one failing grade or more.
The number of high school students with one F or more was 2,525 after the first quarter of the 2019 fall semester. At the same time this fall, 4,181 high school students had one failing grade or more.
In terms of percent of students with one or more F grades, it rose from 35.56% in 2019 to 59.33% in 2020.
Superintendent Sean McDaniel said attendance plummeted during the fall semester.
“At one point in the first semester, we had dropped about 15 points. We know that if kids are not logging in, they’re not learning,” he said. “We're going 12 to 14 hours a day with some of our folks trying to locate kids.”
McDaniel said teachers and principals were stressed daily by the change to virtual learning, the possibility of changes in learning format mid-semester, and the added responsibility of checking the emotional welfare of students.
“I really usually don’t allow people to talk about being ‘overwhelmed,’ it’s an overused word. In this case, we have overwhelmed our teachers. Not because we wanted to, but because of our circumstances,” McDaniel said. “We added stuff every week to their plate.”
The district plans to start the spring semester virtual and begin a transition to a split schedule early in the year.
During the fall, OKCPS referred heavily to the rate of COVID-19 infection in Oklahoma to determine whether moving back to classrooms was safe.
In the spring, McDaniel said additional staff dedicated to contact tracing, additions to buildings aimed at improving air quality, and rapid tests on-site for teachers will help keep their classes in-person even if infection rates are up locally. For more on OKCPS’ plan for the spring, click here.
McDaniel said getting students back into classrooms, “represents a level of hope for us that we can gain some ground that we have lost when it comes to learning.”
Edmond Public Schools
Edmond Public Schools split their high schools on an A/B schedule, split between in-person and virtual for most of the semester. Students on the ‘A’ schedule were in-person for 26 days of the semester while students on the ‘B’ schedule had 28 in-person days.
The district held one week for virtual classes across all schools before Thanksgiving due to staffing challenges.
According to a district spokesperson, 1,259 high school students, or 17.7%, are enrolled in Virtual Edmond, the district's option for only distanced learning.
Among all high school students, the failure rate jumped from 2.19% in the fall of 2019 to 5.58% in the fall of 2020.
Shawnee Public Schools
Shawnee Public Schools offered high school students in-person and virtual classes as well as a split schedule.
A third of the students used the virtual option.
The high school failure rate nearly tripled from the fall of 2019 to 2020. It increased from 10% in 2019 to 27% in 2020.
Newcastle Public Schools
The Newcastle Public Schools District, which has 645 high school students, aimed for an entire semester of in-person classes.
Staffing challenges, due in part to quarantines, forced the district to use virtual classes for two weeks in late September and early October.
Throughout the fall semester, a student had to be quarantined more than 1,500 times due to possible exposure to COVID-19. The district’s enrollment is about 2,300 students.
Every student without an electronic device was issued one by the district, which was used during quarantine or for the district’s virtual option.
Data on failure rates from 2019 and 2020 were not available.
Bethany Public Schools
High School students at Bethany Public Schools used a split schedule for most of the fall 2020 semester.
About 52 high school students, or 10%, opted to use the district virtual-only option for the semester.
In the fall 2019 semester, the district’s high school failure rate was around 2%. The district’s superintendent, Drew Eichelberger said they are expecting the failure rate for fall 2020 to be between 2-6%.
Deer Creek Public Schools
Deer Creek Public Schools did not provide information on failure rates for the semester. A spokesperson said the data is pending due to finals and other grades.
The district operated high schools on a split schedule for 17 weeks. About 22% of high school students chose distanced learning for the semester.
Mid-Del Public Schools
Mid-Del Public Schools used a split schedule for about 11 weeks and changed to a schedule with four in-person days on November 9. The district is still using the four-day schedule.
The district did not provide information on high school failure rates.
About 21% of high school students chose the district’s virtual option for the semester. These students provided their own electronic devices, according to a spokesperson.
The district issued 1,765 devices to students for virtual classes.
Yukon Public Schools
High school students at Yukon Public Schools had a completely in-person schedule for eight weeks of the fall semester, and virtual for another eight weeks.
YPS did not provide information on failure rates of high school students.
About 10% of YPS high school students opted to use the district’s virtual option. About 8% chose to use the blended option.
Widened Inequalities in Education
Before COVID-19 was ever detected, there was a significant gap in academic performance between Oklahoma’s white and minority students.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Oklahoma was below average in the U.S. in terms of reading and math scores in elementary and secondary schools.
The NAEP’s 2019 report card for the state showed Black students in Oklahoma scored 30 points lower than white students in eighth-grade math. Hispanic students scored 11 points lower, and students eligible for the National School Lunch Program scored 20 points lower than their white classmates.
Oklahoma Education Secretary Ryan Walters said he fears these gaps were widened by the pandemic.
“I think we’re going to see students that were behind are going to be particularly affected,” he said. “I think that those are the ones that get the individual intervention, that our teachers are so good at identifying in the classroom setting to say, ‘I’ve got to spend extra time with this student.’
“It’s heartbreaking,” Walters said.
Preparing For Spring
Walters, who was tapped for the position by Gov. Kevin Stitt in September, said every district should offer in-person classes in the spring.
“I really am concerned about our younger students, I’m concerned about our students who have fallen behind,” Walters said.
Many districts have chosen to require masks in school buildings to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Walters said masking and social distancing help “tremendously” to limit virus transmission but is undecided on a statewide mask mandate in schools.
He said Stitt, who called on parents to pressure school districts to offer in-person classes, is still considering such a mandate.
“That will be continuing conversation we have inside the cabinet, but I know the governor himself is continuing to look at all of those factors in making those decisions,” Walters said.
Stitt moved teachers up on the priority list for vaccine distribution last month when he urged districts to offer in-person classes this spring.
On Monday, Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reid said he has no estimate when teachers may start receiving the vaccine. Supply updates are provided weekly from the federal government, he said, so long-term distribution planning is difficult.