The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…. or, How the Pandemic Affected Oklahoma’s Education
My name is Marcella Morton; I’ve been working in education for 46 years. I spent 25 years teaching grades 4-8 in public school, and 21 years as a counselor/guidance specialist for GEAR UP and Educational Talent Search. I have seen many changes in education since beginning my teaching career in 1976, but nothing like the changes that have been implemented since March of 2020.
There was a moment in March of 2020 when every parent and employer in America suddenly realized how much their lives depended on an institution, the nation’s schools, that was too often taken for granted. We didn’t realize as a society how much we needed schools until they were shut down. The bottom line, is that this past year has provided an ‘education’ for everybody connected to schools and colleges.
Ordinary life and education as we knew it seemed normal during the first month of 2020, but in mid-February, things began to change. The general public in Oklahoma did not have a clue that we were getting ready to experience something that would not only affect us, but the entire world. Schools were given a warning in early February by the CDC to prepare for something called, the coronavirus. The first school closings were concentrated in the states of Washington and New York. Schools were questioned about their ability to provide virtual learning. The people in this area of the country had not heard much about a so-called pandemic, so therefore many school districts were not ready for what was about to happen.
On March 11th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a national pandemic, and all schools were alerted. This was right before Spring Break for many local schools. At Westville, administrators made the unpopular decision to cancel the yearly Senior Trip. Parents were irate and requested a meeting so they could voice their opinion about the decision. The administrators stood their ground, prompting many families to pack up and take their senior to Florida for Spring Break. Little did they know the governor of Florida had already declared a state of emergency for their state earlier on March 9th. By March 15th, both Universal Studios in Orlando and Disney World were forced to close their parks.
March 17th, schools were already closed for Spring Break as the decision was made by the Oklahoma State Board of Education to approve school closures until April 6th. This decision was made to protect teachers, school staff, and more than 700,000 students from the spread of the coronavirus. Governor Stitt declared a state of emergency for Oklahoma because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus. WHO then declared COVID-19 as a ‘global pandemic’.
The extended closure forced schools to scramble to provide essential services. Many families rely on the breakfast and lunch provided at school, so making sure that students had access to food was as important as classroom instruction. Learning became secondary, but remote learning was on the minds of school administrators.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted permission for Oklahoma schools to continue meal services during closure. They began offering ‘grab-and-go’ meals for students. The service was approved to continue during part of the summer, along with assistance from churches and other community partners who helped provide food for families in need.
Much was learned in a short amount of time about remote learning. As many Chromebooks/tablets as the schools could order were placed into the hands of their students. Classes went online, but many students in our area faced a significant barrier to instruction. Low-income students were less likely to have access to technology and high-speed internet to effectively engage in virtual instruction. These students also lacked the educational support that make learning at home successful, such as a parent with a high school diploma or a college degree.
Even when classes resumed to in-person after April 6th, the lengthy closure would impact state testing and school accountability. The new education norm resulted in a patchwork of in-person, hybrid, and fully virtual learning in our schools. Much school funding was lost to EPIC Charter School as parents enrolled their students in their online program.
Reopening of schools brought students and school staff back wearing masks, social distancing and with a constant cause for sanitizing – hallways, desks, tables – everything that students would come into contact with.
Students were forced to eat outdoors or inside their classrooms. This caused an increase in mice and roaches inside classrooms, due to food spills. Food selections began to change. Only meals that could be served in the ‘clam boxes’ were used, along with individual baggies. Schools who had provided salad bars were forced to stop serving salads. Meals were loaded on carts and taken from classroom to classroom for breakfast and lunch. Any food not taken from the food carts had to be thrown away. The cafeteria managers struggled with the daily food count, because it was always uncertain how many kids would be present for lunch. Kids would arrive at school, but then be sent home for quarantine because of a positive COVID-19 encounter the previous day.
Water fountains were taped off, and students were told to provide their own water bottles. This prompted many schools to install the water fountains that have bottle fillers since students couldn’t drink from the water fountains.
Bus drivers were required to do temperature checks and ask students to put on a mask before allowing them to ride the bus. Bus seats were marked off with tape, families had to sit with families, and socially distance as much as possible. Sometimes two busses were sent out to pick up kids on the same route so there wouldn’t be a large number of kids on a bus. On older busses, without ventilation, windows had to be left open for air flow.
Teachers faced a daily workload of teaching in-person classes, virtual classes and providing packets for those who still struggled with internet connectivity. Many teachers were getting sick or having to quarantine, so that left other teachers losing their planning periods because they would have to substitute in other classes. No one wanted to sign up for the substitute list for teachers or for bus drivers.
During virtual learning days, teachers struggled with teaching all day virtually, yet they had children of their own at home who needed help with their school work. Many student’s grades plummeted like rocks during the virtual days of learning. Most parents didn’t monitor what their child was doing during online learning and would seem surprised when they would receive a phone call from the teacher saying their student had not turned in any assignments.
Other areas of education were affected, such as parent teacher conferences, which became Zoom meetings or Facetime on personal cell phones. Professional development for teachers required everyone to stay in their rooms while attending Zoom workshops. Some schools stopped all music, choir, and band. Very few stopped sports, but there were changes in how fans were allowed to attend games. For a time being, elementary school students were not allowed to play on any of the playground equipment. There were no outside presentations, like special motivational speakers allowed to come in to the schools throughout the year.
Many ‘normal activities’ were modified to allow the students to feel like they were having a normal school year. Homecoming, See You at the Pole, Walk to School Day, book fairs, bake sales, and graduation were all handled a bit differently, too.
I was a witness for three different 2020 graduations. One had seniors socially distanced on the football field and the parents were allowed to sit in designated areas in the bleachers. To keep people from lingering after the ceremony and creating the super spreader effect, the lights were immediately turned off, so the people had to leave without having time to congregate. At one graduation, parents could arrive at the football field, stay inside their cars and watch the socially distanced graduation ceremony from a distance. They noisily honked their car horns when their senior was called up for their diploma. One other school had a ‘drive-by’ ceremony. The administrators stood in front of the school and families of the seniors would drive up, let the senior out to receive their diploma, get a picture taken, and then drive away. The seniors of 2020 will always have great stories to tell about their graduation. I personally made 140 face masks for the Westville Senior Class of 2020, school board, and senior sponsors for their graduation. They thought it was the coolest thing ever for each student to have a matching face mask, plus it made for a great souvenir.
One of the stark realizations learned from the shutdown was how much our students depended on our schools. They not only depend on school for nutrition; but for love, safety and support they may not be getting from home. Upon returning to school, reports show children aged 8 to 16 showed an increase in depressive and suicidal thoughts or behaviors, compared with before the COVID-19 home isolation restrictions.
For some children, home is not a safe place to be. Parents who were essential workers may have had to make decisions for their family that they would not have ordinarily made, like trusting children to stay home alone or relying on a neighbor to babysit. Students were more at risk for sexual abuse and exploitation. Many children may have been locked away with their perpetrators with no way to report what was happening to them. Hopefully we have learned a very important aspect of protecting our children. Knowing how much our youth use their phones or the internet, we should work to make available to children, adolescents, parents and care-givers contact information and lists of services available to help them in their different situations.
COVID-19 not only changed the way we live, but it also changed us as a species. We will all remember how it affected us for the rest of our lives. The virus forced us to all ‘adapt’ and change.
At this point we have schools attempting to have in-person school as much as possible, but incorporating technology in class to make sure students understand how to navigate their assignments. We realize now that technology is here to stay, especially in education. This will be the future for many areas of education.
Sports and school activities have resumed, with a few restrictions in place. Instead of cancellations, this year we have the activity being postponed until students return after quarantine.
Every part of our school staff has learned to step up to help each other with technology issues or sub in someone’s classroom. This is because they may be the person who needs a sub during the next week.
We have suddenly realized how important social workers and mental health counselors are in our school systems. Millions of students will have to be supported to catch up academically and process their trauma, something that educators say will take years.
According to a group of educators across the nation, ‘There’s no going back.’ So, as we enter a second year of schooling in a pandemic, the words of Superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Debra Gist, “None of us would have even wanted to go through this. We have a chance now to make it something that will change teaching and learning forever for the better.”
The pandemic’s disruptions have forced schools to get more proactive about communicating with families, especially in places where remote learning has turned homes into classrooms. We are also placing more weight on the emotional well-being of all members of a school community. We have always known how home life can affect children, but it has now been brought to the forefront. School districts are now better positioned to handle those who have suffered socially and emotionally with added counselors and staff.
The challenge is great. But it is one that can be met with energy, expertise and vision from educators across the country. Hopefully, everyone will see the importance of educators and it will generate a renewed respect for everyone involved in the educational process.