During demonstrations and public comments Monday evening, the continuing divide in the Norman Public Schools community was bridged by one issue: the desire for more consistency.
In the midst of two demonstrations and a lengthy public comment section at Monday evening’s Board of Education meeting, community members of all opinions expressed frustration with the district’s current path. Some asked for schools to reopen and students to be brought back to in-person learning, while others advocated for more safety measures and further reconsideration of the current plan, but people on both sides asked that the district commit to more stability.
“We need consistency — our children need to know what’s going to happen for the next several weeks,” said Jennifer Hendrix, a NPS parent, during the public comment section. “As soon as our feet are under us, they’re pulling out the rug with a new plan. Teachers, parents, kids — we need to know what’s going to happen for the next several weeks.”
NPS entered its fifth week of school Monday. The district’s current plan outlines a series of criteria that guide the district’s reopening decisions, showing the case threshold for closing and reopening schools.
The plan put students in remote learning for the first week of school (the first two weeks for secondary students), brought those who chose traditional instruction back for a period of in-person instruction, then pivoted students back to remote learning Monday with a week’s notice.
“I just think it’s time to figure out what’s important in this district — if it’s your kids, and their well-being, or if you’re going to take some stand and be the only ones that are going this alternate route,” said NPS parent Kendra Streeter. “I think you just have to decide which ones you want to do, so we as parents can decide where to put our kids.”
Beyond a request for more consistency and communication, the Norman community was again split by opinion Monday.
Prior to the board meeting, one group of parents and teachers gathered outside Norman High School to ask for more safety measures and clear policy in their school. A similarly sized group marched from Lions Park to the front of the NPS administration building at the same time, asking for schools to reopen.
At Lions Park, event organizers said they wanted to gather a group of people who want to see their kids in school and give them the ability to have their voices heard.
Co-organizer and NPS parent Lindsey Crowell said that a lot more contributes to parents wanting their kids in school than not fearing the pandemic.
“You have working parents, kids with a food scarcity at home, abuse at home, and their teachers are a lot of times the ones who catch this,” Crowell said.
The rally drew families and teachers, several of whom said they do not believe the local numbers justify remote learning. NPS released its weekly case report Monday, showing 65 new cases in students and staff across the district’s 24 school sites from Sept. 12-18. The majority of the newest cases are concentrated at the high schools; NHS reported 13 new student cases and seven new staff cases, while Norman North reported 17 new student cases and four new staff cases.
Tonya Gosnell, a teacher at Truman Primary, said she is fully in support of in-person learning.
“We are here in support because we feel our children need to be in school, their parents wanted them to be in traditional learning and we feel like it’s more harm to keep them at home than it is good,” Gosnell said. “More importantly the data doesn’t support that we [shouldn’t] be in school.”
At Norman High on Monday, teachers and parents asked not that schools remain closed, but that the district move forward with safety and clarity.
Several dozen faculty and staff at the high school sent a letter to district administrators Friday listing multiple requests for administrators, including more thorough and regular communication about cases at the school, more contact tracing resources, enhanced school sanitation and more clarity on leave. The letter, along with teachers who spoke to The Transcript, expressed multiple concerns about NHS’ capacity to handle cases, and the district’s communication with teachers and families about positives.
David Powell, an NHS chemistry teacher, said Monday that in NPS’ current state, site administrators are taking on significant responsibilities in carrying out the district’s plan, while teachers are left planning for all different methods of learning.
“There’s no consistency in what we’re able to provide for our students and our families, because preparing for one thing, and maybe it being that way or maybe it not on a Friday … what are we supposed to do?” Powell said. “ … It’s felt like the district has put everything on our site admin … they have been put in a terrible situation trying to actually carry out this ‘plan’ — there really isn’t a plan. I think a lot of us teachers, we’re not doing as good a job as we would hope to do because we’re planning for all of these contingencies.”
Teachers, counselors and parents at NHS said they hope to see more guidance and stability at a district level, and less reliance on every site’s individual execution of the plan.
“What I would like to see from our district is honesty, truth about what’s going on, and to allow us to have a seat at the table with them, to allow us to have a voice in what’s going on,” said Megan Smith, a math teacher at NHS. “One size doesn’t fit all, they’ve said it before, so why can’t elementary go to school and let’s say our site is having issues — then we figure out what our issues are and we try to fix it.”
The two demonstrations met in front of the district administration building half an hour before the meeting began, each group holding its own signs and yelling its own chants.
Multiple teachers and parents brought their concerns from outside the school building to the meeting room, where a public communications section took up the first 40 minutes of the meeting.
Many of the concerns voiced by parents and teachers — that schools should reopen to serve students as other districts are doing, or that the district show care for students with specialized learning needs and those with less resources at home — have come up in the meeting room repeatedly over the last few months.
But Monday’s meeting, the first since school started on Aug. 24, brought a new urgency to the questions and concerns now that students are learning again.
“Please find a way to support those students in our schools who need the most support in their learning while we battle this COVID spread,“ asked Flora Ellis, an NHS senior who spoke to the board Monday.
Despite the demonstrations and the lengthy public comment section Monday, the board could take no action and make no response to commenters, as Monday’s meeting agenda did not contain any items regarding reopening.
Toward the end of the evening, after most speakers had cleared out of the meeting room, Superintendent Nick Migliorino responded to commenters’ concerns, telling the board that NPS has been consistent in following the reopening model it adopted in early August.
“We’ve been the epitome of consistency over the last few weeks in regards to the model,” said Migliorino, who noted that while “the model does dictate back and forth,” the district has been following its plan.
While NPS is making weekly forecasts for the next week’s learning model each Monday, this Monday brought no forecast. Migliorino said Monday evening that the district has received new guidance from the State Department of Education that administrators are currently reviewing and that could impact the reopening plan.
The district did not specify any further about what that guidance looks like, but Migliorino said NPS will hold another board meeting later this week to address any possible action that will need to be taken based on the state changes. Board Clerk Cathy Sasser confirmed that the Board of Education will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday.