NORMAN — Before the members of Norman Public Schools’ Board of Education heard about bond projects and policy revisions, they heard from teachers.
During Monday’s board meeting, seven Norman teachers and one parent used the public communications portion of the evening to share their experiences, input and urgent concerns about the district’s plans to return to instruction next month.
“At the last board meeting, we were urged to understand that your intent is good and that you’re asking for flexibility and a willingness to compromise, but something that you need to understand is that to many teachers, this is a life and death issue,” said Alex Ruggiers, a teacher at Longfellow Middle School. “It’s almost impossible to compromise, and no amount of good intent is going to mitigate losing people that we care about.”
While Norman Public Schools has unveiled many of the major points of its plans for the fall — including a mandatory facial covering policy for anyone in school buildings or buses — the district has yet to settle on many details, including what a threshold for shutting down schools again will look like.
The district is still planning a return to in-person instruction (with virtual options for students who choose) on Aug. 17, Superintendent Nick Migliorino confirmed Monday.
Teachers who spoke Monday night urged the district to take caution with its reopening plans, and to thoroughly address more questions and concerns before sending teachers and students back to in-person learning.
“I am public school proud, but I don’t feel proud today of this plan,” said Jennifer Anderson, a Longfellow Middle School teacher and NPS parent. “I’ve been pouring over the documents on the NPS website, that which has been sent to us as teachers and parents … and I’m frankly not impressed. In order for parents to make a decision for their children about schooling, and teachers to make the painful decision about whether to return to the classroom, we need a detailed, proactive plan — there are a lot of things that aren’t answered, we can’t decide yet.”
District administrators have emphasized that their plan is constantly subject to change, a fact that became clear with an announcement NPS made shortly before the meeting began.
While the district originally offered three options for student learning this year — traditional in-person learning, blended, or virtual learning via a contracted service called Edgenuity — the district announced Monday that it will also allow students to learn virtually from Norman Public Schools teachers. Edgenuity does not use Norman teachers, but the new option will give students the chance to learn remotely via the district’s learning management systems and a local teacher (though not necessarily one from their home school).
The district has released a survey to teachers to gauge interest and need to teach virtually, and also will be measuring student interest as families continue to enroll for the upcoming school year, a spokesperson said Monday.
While teachers said they are glad the district listened to community feedback about Edgenuity, they’re hoping for more action before the district considers returning to in-person instruction.
Many of Monday night’s comments echoed an open letter to the district released by NPS parents over the weekend and signed by more than 2,000 community members so far. The letter asks for NPS to address multiple concerns about the fall before reopening schools.
“If we need to delay virtual instruction until teachers and administrators feel they are ready, so be it,” said MaryAnn Martin, one of the authors of the open letter and an NPS parent who also spoke Monday night. “We want every single member of our school community to feel safe.”
Teachers also are concerned the district’s social distancing plans are not enough to protect individuals in already crowded classrooms, they said. Because the district (and more largely, the state) has not yet released plans about protocols for when teachers and students start testing positive for COVID-19, teachers said they’re concerned about what happens if and when principals and other school site leaders start having to quarantine.
“Our buildings are overcrowded — mine has no windows,” Anderson said. “I had 32 pre-algebra students last year — I had kids in the hallway shoulder to shoulder. There is no way we can open in person and keep kids safe if we don’t find a way to reduce our class sizes and our building density.”
Multiple teachers raised safety concerns for themselves and their colleagues. Ruggiers and other educators asked the board what happens if teachers die from COVID-19 after being sent back to school this year.
As teachers and staff begin re-entering their school buildings over the next few weeks, educators said they are concerned the district is sending people back too soon.
The board cannot respond to comments during public communications, and later took only one action specifically related to the return to instruction by approving the revised attendance policy for the upcoming school year. The policy, detailed last week, sets expectations for learning this year and adjusts the district’s absenteeism guidelines.
The district should soon be hearing from state education officials about more guidelines and resources for the return to instruction, Migliorino said Monday.
After public comments, the board also voted to have the district join a lawsuit against the e-cigarette manufacturer Juul. The suit, which multiple Oklahoma districts have now joined, claims that Juul intentionally marketed its products to underaged children without advertising the harm its products, which contain nicotine, could cause.
The suit would seek damages that would allow NPS to pay for any resources the district needs to address vaping and Juuling issues in its schools.
The board also approved multiple subcontractors for ongoing bond projects.