TULSA, Okla. — As local school districts prepare to welcome students back, the Delta variant of coronavirus is looming over their classrooms, leading them to take a hard look at COVID protocols.
This time last year districts grappled with whether to offer in-person or distance learning. Right now, it appears districts want to start the year in the classroom, but there’s still a lot of concern. Teachers are remaining hopeful.
“I’m excited for this year," said Marissa Hastreiter, a fourth-grade teacher at Hoover Elementary in Bartlesville. "Last year, I was very nervous.”
The new school year is bringing a fresh start for students and teachers after being riddled with uncertainty last year.
“Knowing where we were last year, just was, we had no idea," Hastreiter said. "You know, we were coming in, we were allowed in our rooms, we didn’t know where to start. Are we going to be in rows? Are we going to be in groups? Are we going to wear masks or are we not?”
Teachers like Hastreiter are preparing for school’s first day. Bartlesville students go back August 12. However, this school year begins with its own complication, the spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus.
“You know, we’re about exactly where we were last year," said Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department. "Our case reports are about the same, hospitalizations are very close. And so, last year at this time our thought was that next year at this time we’ll have a vaccine and we’ll be past this. Well, we have a vaccine and sadly we’re not past this.”
The Delta variant is causing districts to take a hard look at their COVID protocols before welcoming students back.
Bartlesville Public Schools could start off the year on high alert. As of Aug. 1, the district is in “code red." Meaning masks are strongly recommended, indoor and outdoor venues are limited to 50 percent capacity and only students, staff and authorized partners are allowed past the front office. While the district won’t require classroom-based quarantines, Hastreiter’s concern is keeping students in the classroom.
“It’s really hard for them for me to send work with them and then expect them to come back the same level," Hastreiter said. "Because they’re not getting the same education, technically, from being at home because I’m not teaching it to them, versus being in the classroom.”
Districts plans can change day-to-day based on COVID numbers. The CDC recommends starting the year in-person, that those eligible get vaccinated and that those in school buildings wear masks. However, a mask recommendation is all schools can give.
Governor Kevin Stitt signed SB 658 into law which says schools can only implement a mask mandate if the governor declares a state of emergency, which Gov. Stitt previously said he's not planning to declare.
“Everyone shares the same concern, keeping people safe," Dr. Dart said. "And, yes we have some legislation that prevents schools from issuing mandates around masking and the vaccine, but you know, that recommendation is still there.”
It’s a recommendation many schools like Tulsa, Bartlesville and Union Public Schools plan on following.
“Going into the new school year, we’re really just wanting to have a good year, keep things on track," said Chris Payne, chief communications officer at Union Public Schools. "And keep the learning going. I mean, we just don’t want them to be, we want there to be as few interruptions to learning as possible.”
Most districts are giving students a virtual option. Union said about a third of its students started in virtual learning last year and about 400 are already signed up this year.
“It is one of those things though, and we have said this all along, virtual really is not an option that is good for all," Payne said. "There are certain students that really excel in it. Now, it’s been convenient since we had a pandemic. It’s been an option to help keep kids safe at home. But in a perfect world, it is probably not be all end all for all students.”
Students heading back to the classroom means they could be exposed to COVID or other illnesses. But how do parents know if their child just has a cold or needs to be tested for COVID?
“At this juncture, if your child is experiencing those types of symptoms that look like the normal allergy symptoms, let’s get tested," Dr. Dart said. "Let’s find out what they are and then we can follow recommendations and keep everyone safe after that. If they’re negative, great. If they’re positive, then we can move forward and assure we can stop that spread.”
As schools prepare to welcome students back in their hallways, Hastreiter said she’s happy they’re able to be back at all.
“We’re excited," Hastreiter said. "Of course there’s always nerves. But we’re ready to have them and we want to make this year as normal as we can be. Of course, we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID normal yet, but we’re hopeful that we get there.”
Districts are slowly rolling out their COVID protocols for the year. We have a list of districts and their plans here.
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