NORMAN — It was a different scene for Moore Public Schools on Aug. 13
With new procedures in place, including social distancing protocols and mask requirements, students and teachers across 35 school sites made their return on Thursday, Aug. 13, ending a five-month break from in-person instruction that began last March as school districts closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday marked the first full week of in-person instruction for the district.
While Thursday marked a much anticipated return to school for some in the district, students and staff are navigating through new challenges due to the pandemic. One new challenge came shortly after classes began, when the district announced on Aug. 14 that two high school students had tested positive for COVID-19.
Prior to the district's announcement, The Transcript talked to several MPS teachers to discuss their feelings on returning to the classroom and the district’s COVID-19 protocols.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down school districts last spring, there was uncertainty about the return to in-person instruction.
Local school districts statewide are taking different approaches to reopening, including Norman Public Schools, which announced its plans to begin the year fully virtual earlier this month. However, Moore Public Schools remained committed to its three-option plan announced earlier this summer, allowing students to choose between a traditional, distance learning and virtual educational experience.
While most students chose the traditional choice, around 5,550 of the district's 25,000 students picked the fully virtual option, Jones said.
For some MPS teachers, Aug. 13 was a much needed return to the classroom. Rachel Rose, teacher at Sooner Elementary, said she was confident in the district’s plan to return to school.
“I think in general there’s always going to be concerns because there are so many unknowns that you can’t really prepare for, but overall I feel like (the district) has done a good job of giving us the best possible way to go back to school,” Rose said. “They’ve done as many things as they can for us to be the safest we can be to go back to school.”
Heather Staley, teacher at Central Junior High, said she appreciated the district’s three-option plan and was excited to return to school.
“I didn’t realize how excited I was until I was driving to school (on Thursday), and I was almost crying just because I was so excited to see my kids,” Staley said. “There’s just some things you don’t get (with) virtual school. ... When (the administration) announced our return to learn plan and I saw that one of the options was going back to school, I emailed our superintendent and told him I was so thankful they gave us the option to be back in our classroom with our kids.”
New procedures in place
The district's return-to-learn plan included a few significant changes for the fall semester, including a mask requirement for all students and staff and new rigorous sanitation procedures.
While the new procedures have created changes in day-to-day operations, some teachers were surprised at how quickly they fell back into the routine of a typical school day. Staley said she was especially impressed with how well the students managed wearing their masks.
“I had some apprehensions about if the students were going to want to wear their masks, if they were going to be compliant or complain, but they were compliant,” Staley said. “It’s probably not everyone’s favorite thing to be doing. But when I've talked with my own kids who are in school and with my students I have and students in the halls, they’re just so happy to be back in school. They’re like, ‘if we have to wear a mask, we’ll wear a mask. If we have to social distance, we’re OK with that.’”
In addition to masks, there are new social distancing requirements. The desks and tables in classrooms have been spaced out to maximize social distancing, and the hallways have been rerouted for one-way traffic to increase space between students.
Rose said the new procedures did not have a major impact on her classes.
“We did the same things throughout the day that we’ve done in the past,” Rose said. “There was just extra sanitation and cleaning in between different things. We just gave ourselves extra time to do things to make sure we were doing it in the safest way possible.”
Michelle Grogan, librarian for Southmoore High School, said the staff has made additional changes, including limiting entrance to the library and adding sanitary procedures.
“We’re kind of walking around and thinking ‘What can we do here?’ or ‘how can we make this better?’” Grogran said. “As things come up, we just keep tweaking everything. It’s a constant process. I’m sure things will come up in the next few days and weeks (that we need to change). ... But I’m always thinking, ‘What have we not thought of?’ We want to keep kids safe because we want them to stay in school.”
The district is aware that tough decisions regarding school- or districtwide closures could be made if cases rise locally or across the state, MPS Superintendent Robert Romines told The Transcript earlier this month.
The Moore district notified parents and staff last weekend that two high school students, one at Westmoore and one at Moore, who had attended school on Aug. 13 had tested positive for COVID-19.
The district was notified Aug. 13 that a Westmoore student who knowingly had the virus was at the school. The student had tested positive prior to the start of the fall semester and was mistaken regarding the student's end-of-quarantine date, which was not until several days after school began on Aug. 13, according to the district's letter.
The Moore student was unaware of having COVID-19 and attended school on Aug. 13, according to the district's letter.
The district launched its contact tracing protocol upon learning of the positive cases, according to the letter. The contact tracing protocol includes identifying students and staff who may have been potentially exposed to the virus through close contact with the student. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as anyone who has been within 6 feet of someone who has tested positive for more than 15 minutes.
The district used teachers' assigned seating charts to determine that 25 total students at both schools were exposed, and those students were sent home, according to MPS director of communications Dawn Jones. The district's investigation determined that the students, including the two who tested positive, were wearing masks while on campus in accordance with the district's mask policy.
According to the district's plan, students and staff who test positive are required to quarantine for 10 days prior to returning to an MPS facility, and students and staff who are exposed are required to quarantine for 14 days.
The district did not return a request for comment regarding further information on last week's positive cases by press time Saturday.
Last week, Jones said the district is adhering to guidance from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, local health departments and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
The OSDE’s color-coded alert system, which uses OSDH data in issuing recommendations for the fall semester, has Cleveland County at yellow level as of Friday, a designation that recommends school districts reopen with mask requirements and screenings of staff, students and visitors prior to entrance to school sites.
Jones said the district is currently working to develop an alternative A/B schedule that would put different groups of students in a school on different days if Cleveland County’s designation is upgraded to Orange 1.
Grogan, Staley and Rose are hopeful that the district’s procedures are successful in keeping schools open during the fall semester.
“I think we are set up to be as successful as we can be, especially with the ionization system they’re installing and the mask mandate and the social distancing we have in the classroom and the different procedures we have in place,” Rose said. “But as teachers, we are usually planners, and sometimes there are things that are out of our control that we don’t like very much ... but this is a growing point for us and we’re learning to be flexible. That’s the motto for the year.”
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