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Norman Public Schools administrators addressed school safety, building re-openings and the district’s need for community support during a Wednesday morning question and answer session.

NPS Superintendent Nick Migliorino, Associate Superintendent and Chief Human Resource Officer Holly Nevels and Chief Operating Officer Justin Milner joined Norman Chamber of Commerce President Scott Martin to answer community questions on schools during the chamber’s annual Partners in Education Breakfast. The breakfast, usually held in person for district administrators and community businesses, was instead a Q&A via Zoom this year.

With all Norman school sites fully open for in-person instruction this week, much of Wednesday’s discussion focused on the decisions that go into school -re-openings and the safety of in-person classrooms. While NPS has not released its enrollment numbers for fall 2020, Migliorino said Wednesday that about 60% of the district’s total enrolled students have stuck with traditional, in-person learning this year, while 40% have chosen a remote or blended option.

Safety and PPE in schools

While administrators received questions about the availability of social distancing and personal protective equipment in schools, Milner said that only having 60% of enrolled students regularly attend in-person classes helps spread out schools. Teachers and community members have raised concerns about the ability to distance in classrooms and school settings, while parents have started campaigns to collect and donate PPE to district teachers.

Milner said that while the district does have a stock of available PPE and does provide masks, classroom cleaning supplies and other PPE as needed, community donations are always welcome. Teachers or staff with additional PPE needs can contact their site administrators or school health professional, Milner said.

Milner also touched on several points of NPS’ social distancing measures for schools, including staggered passing periods, increased sanitization in heavy traffic areas and creating one-way hallways.

Though NPS has been back to school, in various formats, for nearly two months, teachers and community members have continued to make their concerns for safety and wellness in schools heard. The district reports new COVID-19 cases and isolation/quarantine numbers among all school site staff and students in a weekly report, updated every Monday.

In response to a community question asking “what’s going to change to make teachers feel safe?”, Nevels pointed to employees, saying that teachers will continue to take the action they need to feel safe in their schools. The educational changes brought on by the pandemic created new challenges for teachers that may make them feel like they can’t be their best selves, said Nevels, who said teachers are facing multiple levels of challenges in their jobs right now.

“There’s lots of shots at our employees’ safety right now — there’s lots of things that happen off-kilter, and feeling like they’re not doing their best, they’re not feeling protected, they’re not feeling healthy,” Nevels said. “So how do we fix that? The way we always have to fix those things. It takes time, and I will tell you for our employees, it takes their voice and their action. There are no group of employees, in my opinion, that want to be hands-on, doing the work more than teachers.”

The district’s student services division is creating “COVID councils” that will allow teachers at all levels to give their input, Nevels said. District administrators have been visiting all NPS’ individual school sites, and plan to do so regularly to check in on site needs, Nevels said.

“From that, we’ve seen sites create subcommittees, where they now want to dig in and do the work that impacts their site,” Nevels said. “They’re doing something, and I think they feel very empowered by that work, and I think safety will come.”

School re-opening, closing decisions

As of three weeks ago, Norman schools are following a re-opening plan that will keep school buildings open in all but the most extreme county COVID situations. Administrators on Wednesday walked through some of the ways they’ve made re-opening decisions the last few months, but clarified that ultimately such decisions come down to recommendations from the superintendent.

NPS is following the State Department of Education’s recommendations on school re-openings, and would only return to completely remote instruction should Cleveland County reach a Red Level in the state’s county risk designations. Under that state system, multiple factors can trigger a Red Level, which is primarily defined as 50 or more cases per 100,000 people.

While the district takes feedback from the community and consults with internal councils, cabinet members and the Board of Education, Migliorino has the final recommendation on school opening and closing decisions, he said. NPS follows the state’s re-opening plan district-wide, but administrators may have to make school closing calls for individual sites depending on their specific COVID numbers, Migliorino said.

“At any individual site, based on positive tests or quarantines, we may have to go into remote learning,” the superintendent said.

In the months before and during the school year, parents, teachers and vested community members have been divided over if and how Norman schools should reopen. The schism has dominated school board meeting comment sections and public demonstrations.

Administrators said Wednesday that re-opening schools according to the current plan gives families options while serving students in need, but they acknowledged teachers do not have as many options as their students. Milner said that NPS considered the needs of its students and their various learning styles, along with challenges students may face in their home lives, when forming a re-opening plan.

“We know that (virtual learning) is a space that families and students thrive in, but we also know that … 60% of our students really need that in-person opportunity to be successful,” Milner said.

Administrators also clarified the district’s policy for employees to handle illness during the pandemic. Nevels said that employees who are sick or are exposed to a loved one who is sick should take their sick leave and stay home. Should the employee or their loved ones turn out to have COVID-19, the district can swap that personal accrued sick leave for federal coronavirus leave, Nevels said.

External support

Wednesday morning’s breakfast also served as an ask for continued community support of Norman Public Schools, as administrators said school sites still need volunteer help during the pandemic.

Though school sites are generally closed to visitors right now, administrators said sites are still accepting volunteer support in several forms. NPS is low on substitute teachers this year, running with less than a third of the substitutes the district had last year.

“So much of the specific group who chooses to be a guest teacher or substitute in schools is impacted by COVID-19 — oftentimes, they’re retired teachers, they’re older community members, so right away, that’s going to be a damper on your ability to have the number of guest teachers that you would need in a regular school year, much less in a school year where you may have teachers out ill or in quarantine,” Nevels said.

Nevels said in the last two weeks or so, more than 40 people have applied to be guest teachers in Norman schools, but the district is still in need of volunteers to fill more guest teacher spots and serve other needs in schools.

As enrollment numbers are finalized, NPS also faces questions about state funding. Migliorino clarified some of the state funding formula Wednesday, noting that Oklahoma bases its funding off of a district’s highest enrollment in the last two years. Since the district saw an increase in enrollment last year for the first time in several years, this year’s funding will be based on that higher enrollment number.

Migliorino said the district is still uncertain about funding based on the value of each student, but also said that students will be fully counted in the district’s funding whether they’re learning in person or remotely this year.

Migliorino also encouraged Norman residents to take the 2020 census, since census numbers impact the federal funding local schools receive.

“The short of it is, our enrollment from last year is what our funding this year is going to be based off of, the value of each student is going to be the unknown right now,” Migliorino said. “ … We’re in a pretty solid place. From the federal side though, please fill out the census.”

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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