November 25, 2020
BPS Families, Students, and Staff,
On a chilly Thanksgiving Day 30 years ago, somewhere in the desert of northern Saudi Arabia, I gathered with a group of Marines to celebrate the holiday. A styrofoam tray loaded with cold turkey and other fixings didn’t quite meet grandma’s standards, but I don’t recall anyone complaining. For that one day - thousands of miles from our friends and families back in America - we took a welcome break from the around-the-clock planning and training related to ongoing and future military operations against Iraq. Instead, we relaxed, shot the breeze about what was happening back in our hometowns, shared family traditions, played cards and two-hand touch football, assembled in religious services, and gave thanks for one other.
Inevitably, our conversations transitioned to the potential of upcoming combat operations. As a young 29-year-old Marine Captain, I had no previous experience with warfare despite my extensive training as an artillery officer. Yet, because of my rank, some of my younger marines assumed I possessed detailed “scoop” or wisdom that might help address their questions, concerns, and anxieties. However, they didn’t fully understand that serving as a junior officer in a multinational military operation is akin to being a small fish in the ocean - you really only know the water around you and have little influence over other fish who are not swimming nearby. When it came to answering questions like, “What do you think is really going to happen, Captain Miller?", I don’t remember having good answers. I suspect I replied with something along the lines of, “I’m not really sure, but I have complete confidence in our leadership. They’ll take care of us. They will make the right decisions for the right reasons. We will be okay.” Fortunately for me and all of my Marines that were gathered that day - they did, and we were.
Today, as a 59-year-old school superintendent, I find myself in a very different yet similarly unsettling situation having to address serious questions and concerns from our employees and community related to an unrelenting global pandemic, one that continues to wreak havoc on our nation, state, and community. I am not equating our current health crisis to service in a military environment. However, the current COVID-19 health crisis in our community is undeniably serious, growing increasingly worse by the day, and has become extraordinarily difficult to manage in our schools. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence that these dangerous case numbers and trends will do anything but get more severe over the next few weeks - potentially exploding to a full-blown health crisis for our community and state.
When we initially published our district’s Return to Learn guidance in July, I made this point exceedingly clear -- that if we reached a point in this pandemic where we no longer had strong confidence in our ability to adequately protect the health and safety of our students, employees, and their families, we would transition to distance learning. I was hopeful we would not have to make that decision and send this letter. But, friends, we are here.
After extensive conversations with my district leadership team, site principals, teachers, and individual board members, we have made the difficult decision to transition all BPS students to distance learning for the remainder of this semester. We believe that this is the right decision for the right reasons at the right time.
This virus is not a hoax and is no longer affecting just the elderly or health-compromised. Every important number related to this virus in Bixby and Tulsa County is increasing, and rapidly: 7-day rolling averages, active community cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and infection rates. These statistics are frightening particularly given the potential explosion of cases after Thanksgiving and leading into the winter holiday break.
In BPS, we have seen a recent surge in the number of positive staff members, from a total of 25 over the first three months combined to 38 cases in November alone. Four of our site principals are currently isolated, quarantined, or returning from COVID with lingering symptoms. And, while the majority of employee cases have been manageable, we have had several employees hospitalized with severe health complications in the past week. COVID is unrelenting and more cases are confirmed in our schools nearly every single day - four more today, three yesterday, a dozen last week.
The risks to the health and safety of our students and staff have reached a tipping point in Bixby and other communities around our state. It is no longer believable to tell our employees that their safety is our top concern while exposing them to rapidly escalating COVID cases every day. We are in the people business and it’s important to consistently demonstrate our respect, loyalty, and care for them … and for you.
In addition to keeping our students and employees healthy, we also have a responsibility to contribute to the overall health of our community. Bringing 6,500 people together on a daily basis during a burgeoning health crisis is simply not the right thing to do. It is not realistic to expect case counts to decrease if we simply continue business as usual in our community. Even the White House Coronavirus Task Force in its November 22nd Oklahoma guidance states:
“The silent community spread that precedes and continues to drive these surges can only be identified and interrupted through proactive, focused testing for both the identification of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals. This must be combined with significant behavior change of all Americans. Ensure masks at all times in public, increase physical distancing through significant reduction in capacity in public and private indoor spaces, and ensure every American understands the clear risks of ANY family or friend interactions outside of their immediate household indoors without masks. Mitigation efforts are inadequate or too recently implemented to see a significant impact.”
I heard this sentiment echoed by a high-ranking CDC official earlier today, who remarked bluntly: “We simply have to stop breathing each other’s air.”
We recognize this decision may have significant effects on our BPS families. We also dislike sharing this information on the eve of a major holiday, but believe that families need as much advance notice as possible. I promise you this - our BPS teachers and staff stand ready to do all we can do to continue to support our students and families over the next few weeks. We will work very hard to meet your needs, whatever they may be. Individual students with specific learning needs will continue to have access to in-person instruction as we did earlier in the semester. Additional information relative to technology, child nutrition services, student activities, and instructional activities will be shared on Friday.
Finally, I will close by sharing another maxim I learned from military service: “The poor leader is not necessarily the one who makes poor decisions - it’s the one who fails to make the right decisions.” I am proud of our school leaders for having the conviction and fortitude to advocate for their teachers and students at this time. My district level administrators are smart, deliberate, passionate, and student-focused. Our Board of Education members all have children who attend schools in our district and understand fully the gravity of these decisions. This is a difficult choice made with a keen and complete awareness of the implications, both good and bad. Yet, it is a decision whose time has come.
As my Marines and I placed our trust in our senior leaders thirty Thanksgivings ago, I would ask for your continued support and trust today and over the next few, difficult months - even if you don’t agree. This won’t be easy. This won’t be perfect. But, we will hopefully keep people safe. If we achieve that, all the the rest is manageable. We will be okay.
Please continue to take care of you and your families during this time. Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving!