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As the upcoming school year draws closer, some Norman Public Schools teachers are ready to get back to their classrooms and teach in person for the first time in months.

Norman Public Schools is planning a return to instruction on Aug. 17. While district administrators have emphasized that the back-to-school plan is always subject to change, NPS is currently set to start mostly in-person instruction next month, with alternate learning options available.

At last Monday’s school board meeting, seven teachers spoke to the board to express their concerns with in-person instruction and the district’s current back-to-school plan. Several dozen teachers from across the district are among the more than 2,000 community members who signed an open letter from Norman parents asking the district to delay the start of school until more concerns are addressed.

Alongside those with reservations about the district’s plan, some teachers say they trust the district’s guidance, and are ready to be back in the classroom with their students next month. Sari Coggburn, a kindergarten teacher at Truman Primary, is among several teachers who said they have concerns about the possibility of virtual learning, and hope to teach their new students in person this fall.

“Our community has had the utmost respect for our teachers at Norman Public Schools, and I want to support our community — I want them to know that there’s teachers out there, and we know that this isn’t going to be perfect, and we know that it’s going to be hard, but we want to be back in our classrooms,” Coggburn said. “Learning will look different, classes will look different … but as educators, we always come together and we figure out how to make it work.”

Coggburn and multiple other teachers said that while they respect their colleagues who are concerned about returning to school, and support their decisions, they personally hope to be able to return to their classrooms.

“I fully support my fellow teachers and the families and children that we service — I just feel if teachers do not feel safe, I absolutely support them and understand their decision to do virtual online or stay home,” said Ryen Muralt, a fifth grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary. “I would just like my choice — if I chose to be in the classroom, I don’t want that choice taken away….my students, I know they learn best face-to-face.”

Muralt and other teachers who want to return to in-person instruction said they’re concerned about student issues like access to technology, social, academic and emotional support. They also believe students benefit from the natural structure and routine of going to school.

“One of my biggest concerns moving forward is just access — I know that there are families that don’t have technology and don’t have the means to log on daily or even get on Seesaw,” said Heather Pogue, a kindergarten teacher at Monroe Elementary.

Pogue said there came a point last spring when it became difficult to connect with students, some of whom stopped showing up to virtual meetings. For parents who can’t afford to stay home if their children have to learn from home, or students who don’t have the devices or ability to connect virtually, the fall semester could present similar challenges, teachers said.

The concern about access to technology and learning materials is paired with a concern for students’ access to health and social resources, especially for students who have less access to reliable meals, health care or mental and emotional services, Coggburn said.

“I feel though virtual learning could be a good option for some, I feel like it’s not a good option for all because even with the best things in place and with Seesaw and Canvas, those things cannot detect hunger, abuse — they can’t make sure the children have Halloween costumes, they can’t make sure they get their Christmas presents,” Coggburn said, “Unfortunately, teachers do those things, and when we don’t have the means to do them ourselves, we reach out to people in the community and we make sure at Norman Public Schools that all of our children’s needs are met … and it’s my fear that we cannot do that job if we are not with them in the classroom, especially if we do not have that rapport and relationships.”

In March, when NPS and other districts abruptly switched to distance learning as the pandemic reached Oklahoma, teachers had already spent several months with their students in person. Distance learning was challenging in a number of ways, teachers said, but their students and families already knew and trusted them at that point in the school year.

This August, teachers will be starting over with new faces and families. Lori Eley, a first grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary, said she’s concerned that should instruction begin virtually, teachers won’t get the chance to build the relationships that they rely on to understand their students’ needs.

“I think maybe what a lot of people don’t understand, unless you’re a teacher, is that teaching is so much more than just standing up in front of the class and giving out information,” Eley said. “We are their emotional support during that learning process — what we’re going to be missing is that rapport that we’ve built with them and that relationship, which every teacher knows that is the key to the learning process … it’s extremely difficult to do that through virtual learning.”

The academic aspect of starting virtually would be a challenge too, said Truman Primary second grade teacher Tonya Gosnell. In the spring, Gosnell said, teachers had already established a weekly routine with their students that they had to switch to distance learning; this fall, teachers would have no set schedule with their students if classes went virtual immediately, she said.

“We already had routines in place with our children (in the spring), and routines are so important for all students to learn,” Gosnell said. “... It would be so hard — not that we couldn’t do it — but it would look so different when we don’t know them at all to try to establish routines.”

The fast-approaching start of the school year comes as Oklahoma continues to experience rising COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths. On Monday, the state recorded its highest-ever single-day increase in cases and highest seven-day case average to date.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education last week declined to mandate statewide guidelines for schools, instead leaving school safety decisions to individual districts.

NPS will require masking for anyone in school buildings, with accommodations if necessary, and has laid out some general district guidelines on social distancing in schools. Individual Norman school sites are also building their own plans under NPS’ umbrella of guidance. The district has not yet publicly defined a threshold for when and if schools will close again this fall.

But for teachers like Coggburn and Janice Campbell, the ability to see and support their students in person and build relationships is worth the risk and the altered learning environment. Teachers said they’re prepared to work with district and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep themselves and their students as safe as possible, but they want to be back in the classroom.

“We trust Norman Public Schools’ administration and board to make the right decisions,” said Campbell, a fifth grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary. “I do feel there probably is a point that none of us would feel safe going back. I don’t know what that point is, but I feel like (the district) will make that decision if that’s the situation. I think we all trust in them to do the right thing.”

Campbell said she has already dealt with the negative mental health effects of being away from her students and her workplace for so long. If Norman does not return to in-person instruction, Campbell said she fears her students will experience the same issues.

“I think we’re feeling some of the things we’re worried our kids will be feeling — we have anxiety, I have some depression from now being at my job that I love dearly with my kids, and not being able to have closure on that last year was really hard,” Campbell said. “(Teachers are) adults and we’re dealing with it, but children don’t have the skills to cope with those feelings like we do.”

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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