Happy New Year! I hope this letter finds you well and that 2021 brings you good health, lots of joy and laughter, many positive memories, and a return to relative normalcy for you and your family.
Last month, the Bixby Board of Education approved a modification to our BPS 2020-2021 academic calendar. The change moved the start of second semester to Monday, January 11 and the final day of school for students to Wednesday, May 26. This recommendation put in place a 10-day quarantine period to reduce the potential impact of increasing COVID-19 cases on our school district and community after the winter holidays.
During the meeting, the board also discussed various reopening plans for the second semester, each with the goal of returning students to regular, in-person instruction as soon as possible, while also giving weight to the valid health and safety needs of students, staff, and families during the ongoing COVID health crisis.
The plans involved three options for students’ return to school this semester, predicated on whether COVID conditions improved, stabilized, or worsened between mid-December and today. Each of these plans included a minimum of one week of in-person instruction next week (January 11-15), with a decision on the status of future weeks to be based on up-to-date COVID numbers.
Regrettably, the COVID-19 health crisis is showing few signs of improvement, locally or nationally. Most available measures continue to reveal an increase in both the spread and severity of COVID in our state and community. As of January 7, Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in the U.S. with a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 25.4% and was tied with Georgia for the highest rate of new hospital admissions for confirmed COVID-19 infections.
Furthermore, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Health, Tulsa County’s rate of new cases per 100K in population remains very high in the RED category at over 85 cases/100K, up from 74/100K on December 10. The rates for the city of Bixby and our largest zip code (74008) are 101.6 and 125.5, respectively. Both figures are significantly higher than the state and county averages. State hospitalizations for COVID also continue to trend upward, from 1,741 on December 17 to 1,994 yesterday, with ICU admissions increasing from 460 to 489 over the same period. Sadly, yesterday, our state experienced an all-time high of 68 COVID-related deaths in one day.
At the same time, the expansion of cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations after Christmas has not been as severe as some health agencies and experts anticipated. In fact, seven-day averages in Oklahoma (3,488) and Tulsa County (542) have leveled off over the past few days. Yet, due to the fact that there can be a lag period of a few weeks after large exposure events or holidays and increases in COVID case numbers, there remains a chance these numbers may surge over the next week as new cases are confirmed.
However, because the current rates have remained relatively stable over the past few weeks, we have decided to reopen schools under level 2 of our revised plan. This means that students in grades PK through 8 will return to in-person classes on January 11 and remain in school as long as we can safely and effectively manage the impact of new COVID cases. Students in grades 9-12 will also return on January 11th, yet will have one additional week of distance learning the week of January 19-22 (Jan 18 is a holiday), to allow for an all-school quarantine period after coming back from break. High school students will then return to in-person instruction on January 25.
Although vaccinations have begun for frontline workers, health professionals, and some vulnerable individuals in our state, the vast majority of Oklahomans will likely not have access to vaccines until later this spring. Teachers and instructional staff have been moved to tier 2 of the state vaccination plan, yet we’ve been advised it may be months until we see broad distribution to all of our staff.
I share these details to underscore that we remain in a very unsteady and unpredictable position. Because we are starting this semester with already very high rates of COVID cases in the community, we will likely experience greater volatility with cases in our schools as we reopen. As a result, the trigger to move some students or schools back to distance learning may occur more quickly. Regrettably, I fear it is not a question of IF we will experience further disruptions to school; the question is more likely WHEN or how often. Therefore, high levels of flexibility and patience are still needed as we navigate the next few weeks and months.
These realities underscore the continued need for all of us to remain vigilant in protecting our own health and welfare and that of our families and fellow citizens. Important safety practices for the foreseeable future include avoiding large gatherings and crowded public spaces, maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands frequently, and monitoring our personal health closely to reduce the level of community spread. More than anything else, it is our collective adherence to these common-sense safeguards over the next few months which will determine our ability to keep our schools open. We appreciate your help and continued support in this effort.
Please remember to have your children bring their Chromebooks back to school with them on Monday. Meal service for students in Spartan Connection Academy will also resume as normal Monday morning. Please contact us if you have additional questions or concerns.
We look forward to seeing everyone back in school on Monday.