School officials discuss school startup scenarios

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During a normal summer, very few people are talking about going back to school prior to the Fourth of July holiday, but this summer is far from normal and Cushing Public Schools Superintendent Koln Knight and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Melissa Amon were guest speakers at the Cushing Rotary Club recently, and they outlined what the district was doing to prepare for the coming school year amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The first thing I’m going to tell you is that we don’t have any definitive answers,” said Knight. “We’re planning on going back to school — regular school, that’s our game plan, while at the same time, improve on our virtual distance learning program, or if we have to, do a blended program.”

Knight said that he is going to wait until mid July to finalize back-to-school plans due to the dynamic nature of the overall situation.

Knight discussed Friday night’s graduation ceremonies saying that he was thankful that the district was able to do that, saying the graduating seniors lost a lot of their spring that they will never get back.

Knight said that it wasn’t only the seniors who were set back.

“It’s really sad and there’s the academic loss that we will have to work on when we get back,” said Knight. “There’s probably some remediation work that we can do, using before-school and after-school programs to help the kids get caught back up.”

Kids off the grid

Knight said that the district is working to get a handle on how many students the district simply lost contact with.

“We estimate that about 30 percent of our kids, district-wide, flat out fell off the grid,” said Knight. “The state department of education didn’t help us out when they told everybody, ‘Don’t worry, your grades can’t suffer because of COVID-19.’”

Knight explained that there was a lot of parents and kids who realized that their grades weren’t going to be impacted in a negative way.

“So we just didn’t hear from them.” He said. “We’ll have to do some remediation.”

Dr. Amon said that the distance learning situation can be worse for younger students in the early stages of their education where it is critical that they develop reading skills before moving on.

“If they don’t get the instruction they need to be able to read in the early years, they could be damaged for life,” she said.

As far as infrastructure and keeping students and faculty safe, Knight said that the district received around $300,000 in stimulus money and plans are to invest about a third of that into cleaning equipment.

“We were already set up for some of this,” he said. “For our buses last year, prior to this situation, we had purchased foggers where we could go in and fog the buses in the evening and disinfect them and we’re going to heavily invest in foggers for our custodians, so they can go in and disinfect the classrooms quickly and efficiently. We’ll do a lot of things to keep our facilities as clean and safe as possible.”

Knight said that the biggest challenge is figuring out how to implement some of the state’s reopening guidelines.

“The state department put out a lot of guidelines early on, and they backed off some of that,” said Knight. ”But its not practical to say that we’re only going to put 12 kids on a school bus. I realistically can’t. You know, you bring kids into a school building, we’re not going to be able to keep them six feet apart. One of our biggest concerns is our staff. If we’re going to have a local shut down, I’m more worried about our staff. The older you are, the more difficult this disease is. If our staff gets sick, we cannot operate because we just don’t have people to stay open.”

Knight said that the schools will also invest in personal protective equipment for the staff and parents.

“If parents want to send their child to school with a mask, that’s fine, but we’re not going to be telling the kid to put their mask up, or on, all day long,” he said. “We have to be real about this.”

Parents have a role to play

Knight said he feels like parents were put into a tough spot in the early spring when they were told, after spring break, that heir kids would not be coming back to school and they would have to use distance learning to finish out the school year.

“Most parents who were concerned, wanted to work hard with their kids to keep their academics up this spring,” said Knight. "You know, the parens are critical in the household no matter how you are trying to educate a child, and with virtual school, it’s even more so. Like I said before, 30 percent of our students just disappeared and that has a lot to do with parental support and guardianship at home.”

Knight said that plan “A” is to bring the students in to the schools and tech them in a classroom setting.

“We’re set up to be a bricks and mortar school and that’s how we are going to operate,” he said. “Some schools are putting out there that they’re going to provide the best education possible no matter what the situation is and they are trying to keep people from checking out and going to schools like Epic.

Knight reiterated that if the district has to send students home and revert to distance learning, it was going to be up to the parents or guardians of the students to see that they succeed.

“I’m not going to look you in the eye and say that distance learning is going to compete with going into the classroom every day,” he said. “I can’t say that. I don’t believe that’s the truth.

It takes an exceptional teacher, parent or guardian in the house that is going to work with that kid every day. When you’re trying to work a full time job and you’ve got two school aged kids, that is a lot to put on a parent and we’ll do the best we can to help.”

Reopening

Dr. Amon said that the district just began to work out the details of their reopening plan.

“We just started working on that this week because we figured that after Oklahoma reopened, we’d get a better view of what things are really going to look like. Things have changed dramatically in the last two weeks.”

Amon said that Oklahoma has guides for reopening schools, as does the CDC.

“We are working on how to take all the information that’s out there and synthesize it down into something that is going to work for Cushing Public Schools,” she said. “Some of the things that we learned from the distance learning experience that we had was that we need a single platform for students, teachers and parents to be able to go to for distance learning, so we are going to implement a district-wide learning management system that will enable us to post videos, post assignments and do everything else in one place without having to utilize things like Facebook or other entities that we were having to use during distance learning. This spring, we had to make a last minute choice to do what we could with what we had.”

Amon said that the district already has it’s curriculum in digital format, which will make any necessary transitions to distance learning that much less rocky.

“Everything we have from Kindergarten through the 12th grade is already digital,” she said. “So if you have kids without a workbook, somewhere, there’s digital copy of that as well.

Amon said the district was going to start working with teachers to get them to start utilizing digital tools more, so that if the district has to move to digital, its not such a shock.

“This way, we’re used to logging on to the platforms and parents have a little more experience with that and they can understand what their students’ logins are and how to get them to the places they need to go.”

Amon said that it is important that while the district does remediation in the classrooms, teachers have to help all students move forward.

“We already have that nineweek gap in their education and we can’t create a new knowledge gap, and create a new problem,” she said, “We’re going to encourage our teachers to move forward while we fill in gaps as we go.

Amon said that the district will offer tutoring programs to help catch up kids.

She explained that the district already had a testing system in place to give school faculty all the data necessary to asses students’ progress.

Amon said there will be some changes in the actual physical look of the classroom as well as the school day.

“We’re looking for creative ways to make space in our buildings to keep kids in smaller groups than we normally would,” she said. “We’re doing away with large assemblies and doing away with field trips in lieu of virtual field trips.

Amon said the. District will begin surveying parents sometime in July.

“We know that parent’s will be ready to have their kiddoes back in school,” said Amon. “We opened up our athletic department this week and had a really good response to that. They have put all the nationally recommended safety protocols in place and so far, so good. The pool has been open and has received another great response. People are ready to reintroduce their children to regular activities. We’re hopeful that a regular start to school will happen, but we are prepared to shift into distance learning if we have to. We’re even prepared to slide our calendar around a little if we have to do that, but we are hoping for as normal a year as we can provide for our students. We’re teachers. What we do is we take our students from where they are, to where they need to be. That’s what we do every year. This year is just going to be little bit harder because more kids are going to be a little bit off.

I do believe we are set up as well as we can be,” said Knight. “I sure hope we go back to normal. I don’t have any good answers. You do what you can to prepare for an uncertainty. You know, it’s raked all of us — the banking industry, businesses, everybody — I almost get sick to my stomach when I hear the words ‘new normal’ I’m so tired of hearing that, but its true.”