Norman High 2020 graduation

Norman High seniors toss their caps in the air during the Norman High School graduation, Saturday, June 27, 2020, at Harve Collins Field. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

Nick Migliorino remembers exactly where he was when the news of Rudy Gobert’s positive test broke.

Migliorino, Norman Public Schools’ superintendent of nearly four years, had welcomed high school baseball players into his house for the evening, hosting a dinner for his senior son, other athletes and team parents.

“All the seniors, myself included, were getting ready to watch the Thunder game, and Rudy Gobert, the message comes on,” Migliorino said. “It was just like, the kids didn't really realize the impact, but my stomach just dropped. Those kids in that room, they were probably the first to hear me say out loud, “this just may be the end of your season and just may be the end of our school year.”

For Migliorino and other education leaders, the March 11, 2020, Thunder-Jazz game was a pivotal moment in the 2020 school year. The next day, the University of Oklahoma announced students would learn online for two weeks following spring break. By March 16, the State Board of Education had voted to close public schools until early April, a move NPS was prepared to make on its own.

Unprecedented challenges

Despite the resources and expertise of leaders at both NPS and OU, no one was truly prepared for the impact the virus would have or the challenges of mitigation. Migliorino said that even though NPS had been receiving guidance from local health entities before the Thunder game, the district was unprepared for the size of the footprint the virus would leave in Norman.

“The scope, how this has affected not only schools, but families, the political nature of it and communities, I don't know that unless you were around and experienced what the measles did back in the early 70s ... I don't think you could even comprehend what was about to take place,” Migliorino said.

OU President Joe Harroz said OU was talking to experts as early as January, and formed a Special Pathogen Preparedness Operations Team to consult on the decisions the university was facing.

OU was forced to make tough calls even earlier than NPS — in early March, the university shut down its premiere study abroad programs in Italy, where the virus was already raging and where about 30 students were living for the semester, Harroz said. By the time COVID-19 officially showed up in Oklahoma on March 6, it was clear the virus would affect the university’s local campuses as well.

“Nothing can prepare you for this life-changing event,” Harroz said. “COVID-19 is unlike anything our world has seen in over a century. Our own OU historian, Dr. David Levy, told us early on that the only comparable event he could summon was the Dust Bowl.”

Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU’s chief COVID officer, said when OU moved online last year, even the university’s medical leaders had no roadmap for mitigating this specific virus. After the initial decisions to move online only for the weeks following Spring Break, OU and NPS moved to distance learning the rest of their semester.

“The decision to move to online education was based on the need to slow the spread of the disease, and was a decision that was made with input from many including consultation with other colleges and universities in the state,” Bratzler said. “At that time, there were no mitigation strategies in place such as social distancing, mandatory masks, or any changes to the ventilation systems of the various buildings on campus. Because it was not entirely clear how the disease was spreading, we knew that there were many factors that had to be addressed to prepare for a return to in-person education.”

Education leaders made hard decisions in those early weeks. OU and NPS both postponed their traditional spring graduation ceremonies as a precaution. While NPS was able to hold in-person ceremonies outdoors in the summer, OU’s spring 2020 graduates won’t be able to walk until this May.

Looking back

Even after school closures, OU and NPS dealt with their own specific challenges, especially when it came to their plans to resume learning in the fall. At OU, departments evolved to meet new needs as students shifted online, then returned in the fall.

Interim Provost Jill Irvine said through significant consideration, university leaders assembled a plan that spaced out class schedules and classroom setups, moved larger classes online and developed some flexibility in delivery methods.

“There was no prior experience like this that we could draw upon,” Irvine said. “In the end we strove for a balance of in-person, hybrid, and online classes … due to changing circumstances, we also had to be prepared for possible disruptions and to pivot. That was one of the best lessons learned – that you can’t predict what’s going to happen, but in the face of uncertain circumstances, you can anticipate the need to be flexible.”

The university also faced the question of how to safely house students in dorms that can pack in thousands of residents, or how to care for the students that needed to stay on campus when the university shut down. In the spring, many international students found themselves with nowhere else to go when campus shut down and their home countries restricted travel.

“Trying to plan for fall 2020 reopening of campus, while also maintaining services for our students who needed to remain on campus throughout the shelter in place order from March through August was indeed a daunting task,” said ShaRhonda Maclin, OU’s assistant dean of students and executive director of Housing and Residence Life. “...For Housing, we spent time developing our COVID Response plan with our Goddard Health Services Team. In addition, we adjusted our inventory to accommodate more single rooms, implemented training for staff, and provided PPE for our teams. It was difficult to anticipate the unknown, but I am pleased with our response as a university this past fall.”

In mid-summer, NPS released a plan to return to learning in the fall. The plan offered families three options for learning, and placed many teachers back in the classroom. For months afterward, the district’s Board of Education meetings were packed with parents, teachers and concerned community members, many offering opposing visions of how students should learn.

While the plan remained consistent, the community quickly realized when school began that students were being pulled in and out of their school buildings based on the level of community spread, and pleaded with the district for consistency. NPS eventually shifted its plan slightly to make learning formats more predictable.

“It was clear that there was frustration, not on one side or the other — on all sides,” Migliorino said. “Even though we felt like we had tons of feedback — we had meetings in groups, every single day, all day, outside, inside, and, we created a new task force that we never had for back to school and just just all of that — but what we heard and I heard and the board heard was, ‘we just want consistency.’”

Elsewhere in Norman, private schools each took their own paths forward. Community Christian School, unlike NPS, did not require masks or enforce social distancing — an administrator told parents before the school year started that CCS would “continue normal school.” All Saints Catholic School, meanwhile, mandated masks, took temperatures and distanced desks.

Moving forward

For Norman Public Schools and OU, existing community relationships were key to making it through the year, leaders said.

Dr. Craig Rice, chief of medical staff at OU Health Services, said the university’s pre-existing relationships with the county and state health departments “aided with our ongoing pandemic planning and acute disease mitigation operations,” and that the pandemic even strengthened Health Services' relationship with its own community.

From the beginning, Bratzler said, community partnerships made the pandemic planning work.

“Leadership from across the university came together to work in teams to address the evolving pandemic to address all of the challenges from an operational standpoint, housing, academics, research, online educational resources, and addressed the need for testing and surveillance of cases,” Bratzler said. “We pulled together our resources, working with the Cleveland County Health Department for case investigation and contact tracing. It was a team effort to address the pandemic.”

While NPS did receive guidance from the State Department of Education and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, Migliorino said other statewide entities provided no roadmap for public schools.

“As far as, ‘hey here's a plan, here's how we're going to do it consistently across the 500 school districts in the state of Oklahoma’ from the state government, from that point, it's been the Wild West,” Migliorino said.

In the general absence of state leadership, Migliorino said local entities like the county health department, Norman Regional Health Systems and IMMY were essential partners for NPS. Moving into the future, those existing relationships are all the stronger for being put through the trials of the last year, he said.

“One of the strengths of Norman Public Schools are partnerships with Sean (Bauman of IMMY), Cleveland County, especially with the Norman Regional Foundation — we already had strong, strong relationships, to the point where we had their cell numbers, so that was there,” Migliorino said. “Did (the pandemic) strengthen that? Absolutely. Did we learn how to work better together? Absolutely. Did we learn what each other's strengths and weaknesses were and how we can help each other? Absolutely.”

Irvine said OU is also moving forward having learned, from first-hand experience, that not all learning formats work for all students.

“Not all students were able to succeed in remote and online formats as well as others,” Irvine said. “Upper division students tended to do as well or better in remote and online formats, but lower division students and those with financial need tended to struggle more with these formats.

“Although some flexibility in format was beneficial this year for safety, there was an impact on student success in high-need and first-year populations. Therefore, it is important to put interventions in place to assist these populations and prioritize in-person formats for these students.”

A year ago, NPS and OU had no blueprint for educating through a pandemic. Now, at least, leadership feels equipped and prepared to keep going, Migliorino said.

“Not to use sports analogies or anything, but we had no scouting report,” Migliorino said. “We didn't know what the opposition was going to bring to us, and when I say opposition, I’m talking about COVID, how that was going to impact us. But what we have now is we’ve played in the first semester, we understand what the opponent is throwing at us. That's one of the great things about the Norman community, Norman Public Schools, always, is that we're willing to be very nimble, based on the information we have. When you have no information, it’s really challenging.”

Emma Keith covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma for The Transcript. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.

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Emma Keith covers the coronavirus pandemic and education for The Norman Transcript, with a focus on Norman Public Schools and The University of Oklahoma. She is a 2019 OU graduate.