I suspect if I had been walking the streets of any of our Bixby neighborhoods around 7:30 last night, I might have heard an audible expression of angst and displeasure emanating from some homes. Maybe even a few screams. COVID-19 has once again disordered our lives and impacted our ability to return to the sense of normalcy we all seek. After 22 months of dealing with the ebbs and flows of this terrible pandemic, I completely understand how you may feel and how aggravating these disruptions have become.
The announcement to move Bixby schools to remote learning was one we had hoped to avoid this year. We spent the majority of the past few days developing contingency plans to address staff shortages to keep our schools open. Yet, by the end of yesterday, it became apparent we could not cover the large number of absences the district is currently experiencing.
Let me be clear – we all want students to be in school – learning with their teachers and socializing with their peers. Teachers do not prefer to instruct their students through a computer screen. Principals do not want to manage a building void of the sounds and laughter of young people. Bus drivers, child nutrition workers, and support staff miss the daily interaction with students. None of these individuals have easy jobs and, often, it is the anticipation of smiles and positive connection with children that make the work worthwhile.
You deserve to know what goes into making these difficult decisions, so here is some additional context. As of this morning, we have 212 students and 58 employees who have tested positive for COVID since our return to school. This total (270) exceeds the total number of cases for ANY month during the entire pandemic. The number of employees with COVID is more than double our previous high month and we are just 11 days into January.
This total does not factor in the number of substitutes who are ill and unable to cover for our teachers who are home sick. The large number of unfilled positions has forced principals, admin assistants, district staff, and other teachers to cover classes during their plan time. In transportation, we have asked our director, assistant director, and office staff to drive routes, impacting their ability to effectively manage their department. Our cafeterias and maintenance sections have been operating with skeleton crews to try to get us through the worst of this surge. Again, with the current explosion of cases, this is just not sustainable.
We expected, and prepared for, a surge of cases after the holiday break. Yet, this is much more than what was anticipated. This rapid increase of cases in our schools reflects what is happening in the larger community, with most of our city returning to the county’s highest category of risk (Dark Red). I’m sure you have heard about, or possibly experienced, the long waits for COVID testing at many of our local medical clinics. Suffice it to say, this latest spread of the Omicron variant has hit our state and community incredibly hard.
That being said, our goal remains to return to in-person instruction as quickly as we can, and to stay there. With the extra day afforded by the upcoming three-day weekend, we are hopeful the majority of our employees and students will be healthy and able to return to the classroom next Tuesday. At that point, we will do all we can to effectively respond to future surges which, regrettably, may continue for another four to six weeks.
I also want to take a brief moment to explain why the district has decided to continue with a ten-day isolation period for students, as our sites are getting numerous questions. In their updated guidance from December 27th, the CDC states that individuals who test positive for COVID-19 should “should isolate for 5 days and if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours), follow this by 5 days of wearing a mask when around others to minimize the risk of infecting people they encounter.”
The challenge with changing our district procedures for isolation is that current Oklahoma law (Senate Bill 658) prohibits mandating the wearing of masks for any individual without an opt-out provision (see Judge Mai’s temporary injunction from September 2021). This ruling is still awaiting an appeal at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Therefore, while we appreciate that many families would ask their child to wear a mask in order to return after five days, the district cannot enforce this requirement if the child chooses not to wear one. As a result, the CDC guidance for students cannot be implemented due to a direct conflict with existing state law.
Spartans, we are going through another difficult time together. We will get through it. Until then, please let us know how we can best support you and your students.