Oklahoma schools struggling to stay open amid omicron COVID wave

Before the bell rang Monday morning, the numbers at Capitol Hill High School already were ominous.

Twenty-three certified teachers would be absent, and only one substitute was available.

Yet, the south Oklahoma City high school managed to open for the day. Teachers filled in for missing colleagues while central office staff and teacher's assistants covered classes.

But by Tuesday, Capitol Hill and four other sites in Oklahoma City Public Schools would close for remote learning, joining another four already in online instruction because of overwhelming absences.

District leaders say dramatically increasing COVID-19 rates have made virtual learning increasingly difficult to avoid, despite schools having been open only a week since winter break.

Superintendent Sean McDaniel said more students and staff are lost to quarantine by the hour.

"I anticipate that at some point in time if our circumstances don't change pretty quickly that, yes, we will likely have to go remote with one or more schools," McDaniel said in a virtual news conference Monday. "The numbers just do not look favorable."

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Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel greets students as they arrive for the first day of school at Rockwood Elementary in Oklahoma City on Aug. 9. McDaniel said a recent surge of COVID-19 cases has made school closures difficult to avoid.

Remote instruction is considered a last-resort option in the Oklahoma City district, but with COVID-19 cases soaring and hundreds of employees testing positive, school personnel are stretched thin, McDaniel said. 

Employees not in quarantine are exhausted after covering for absent peers, he said, and the lack of qualified teachers raises questions about the quality of instruction provided.

Still, the superintendent insisted a district-wide shutdown is not up for serious consideration.

For many students in the high-poverty district, school is the primary source for food, warmth and trusted adults. Closing schools could cut off access to basic necessities.

"That's what we wrestle with each day," McDaniel said.

Students wait in line as they arrive at Rockwood Elementary for Oklahoma City Public Schools' first day of class on Aug. 9.

Districts across the state face similar circumstances as Oklahoma experiences an unprecedented number of COVID-19 infections from the highly transmissible omicron variant.

School-wide closures have occurred in Tulsa Public Schools, Union Public Schools, KIPP OKC College Prep and Sovereign Community School, among others. Some districts, such as Mustang Public Schools, have moved entire grades of students to online learning.

Moore Public Schools has yet to shut down any of its facilities since reopening from winter break, but it's becoming harder to keep it that way, Superintendent Robert Romines said.

Teachers aren't the only employees whose absence could cause a disruption.

"One of the other things we have to consider, too, is transportation and child nutrition," Romines said. "If we can’t feed our kids, if we can’t get them to school, that also comes with some problems."

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Moore Public Schools Superintendent Robert Romines said a recent wave of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma has made it more difficult to keep his schools adequately staffed.

Oklahoma set a single-day record for new cases on Sunday with 9,608 infections. The state's second- and third-most infections recorded in one day occurred Saturday and Monday.

At 9:30 Monday morning, the Oklahoma City district had 284 employees positive for COVID-19. That number increased to more than 300 staff members by the afternoon, McDaniel said.

Similarly, the number of student cases increased from 485 to 582 by the end of the school day on Monday. More than 2,300 Oklahoma City students are in quarantine.

Many surrounding public school districts no longer require quarantines after a COVID-19 exposure, unlike the Oklahoma City district. OKCPS has been among the most consistent in requiring masks while many of its neighbors only recommend face coverings.

More:Record-high COVID-19 cases hit Oklahoma as omicron variant surges in state

In this Jan. 19 photo, a member of the Gatewood Elementary staff takes the temperature of a student while the parent looks on at Gatewood Elementary in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma schools should strengthen their mask and quarantine policies, said Dr. George Monks, the immediate past president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.

The state's COVID-19 rates are now the worst Oklahoma has seen in the pandemic, and vaccination rates among school-age youth remain low. Thirty-three percent of adolescents age 12-17 and only 7.5% of children age 5-11 are fully vaccinated.

"If you look, many of the schools relaxed those polices back in the fall of last year or early this year, and I think it’s had a negative impact on what’s happening right now," Monks said. "Just as the numbers decreased at that time, now we’re looking at numbers that have never been higher, so they should revisit those policies and tighten them a little bit."

 Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at nmartinez-keel@oklahoman.com or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.