COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing amid an omicron-driven surge, and the wave of illnesses are hitting schools particularly hard. Not only are schools struggling to cover classrooms for teachers who are out sick, but coronavirus absences have caused other logistical challenges to bus routes and meal service in school cafeterias.

District leaders have closed some schools, either shifting students to learning from home or using inclement weather days built into the calendar to take a break.

Superintendents described the strain on staffing and the difficult balance of keeping kids safely supervised in school buildings. Oklahoma City Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel on Monday said the district had more than 300 staff members isolating due to a positive coronavirus test.

At Capitol Hill High School, there were 23 teachers out and just one substitute available.

On Wednesday, the entire district shifted to virtual learning for two days. “Even after working to reassign staff at all levels across the district, we have determined that we can no longer adequately sustain a safe and meaningful learning environment for our students. This is a manpower issues, and we are simply out of options,” McDaniel wrote in the announcement.

When Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, who is running for state superintendent, chimed in on social media, it struck a nerve. In posts to his Twitter and Facebook pages, Walters accused administrators of closing buildings “out of fear and not in the best interests of their kids and their future.”

Hundreds of people chimed in on Twitter and Facebook to criticize Walters' remarks.

Rick Cobb, superintendent of Mid-Del Public Schools, responded by saying “It's insulting that you think this is any district's ‘first reaction.' We've been pulling all available staff to cover classes. The fact that #oklaed schools and districts have maintained instruction as long as we have shows your complete lack of situational understanding.”

Lawmakers chimed in, too, including State Rep. Ronny Johns, R-Ada, a former school principal who took the opportunity to commend educators for their hard work: “Words can't describe how tough it is being in public education right now. I appreciate all of our administrators, teachers, and support staff doing EVERYTHING possible to keep our schools open, especially in House District 25.”

Teacher-turned-lawmaker Sen. Carrie Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, responded with this: “I agree we need to keep schools open to educate students. If classes are being ‘covered' which includes splitting classes etc., what is the cost/benefit for academic progress vs overwhelming hospitals? Fellow former teacher here who is over shaming schools.”

Don't miss my recent story on the state superintendent's race, and please reach out via email or DM with comments, tips and story ideas.

Jennifer Palmer

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Public education advocate Erika Wright has been a Democrat and a Republican, and, until recently, a registered Independent. She switched again – back to Republican – in order to vote for state superintendent in the June primary.

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