Randy Hughes

Randy Hughes, superintendent of McAlester Public Schools, says he wants to keep school doors open for in-person instruction as long as it's safe.

Several school districts in Pittsburg County and surrounding communities recently opted for distance learning as COVID-19 cases continue to spike.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force reports continue to list Pittsburg, Latimer and Hughes Counties in the red zone — counties with at least 101 new cases per 100,000 population — with a recent report stating COVID-19 is unyielding in Oklahoma.

Data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health on Tuesday shows Pittsburg County had 1620 cumulative cases, 21 deaths, and 1357 assumed recoveries — or 242 active cases.

Hartshorne, Indianola, Wilburton, and Kiowa were among area school districts announcing a switch to distance learning in the past week as cases continue to rise.

“We’ve said from the beginning that we would open the building to students as long as we could supervise them, feed them, get them back and forth to school,” Hartshorne Public Schools Superintendent Jason Lindley said. “But this week, that became very questionable.”

Lindley said positive cases among teachers and staff members led the district to opt for digital learning last week.

The district implemented COVID-19 protocols before the academic year and recommended masks be worn without a mandate.

Oklahoma’s state board of education last week voted to again strongly recommend masks be worn at districts statewide instead of a mandate.

Lindley said the district will go virtual for two weeks and he believes the district’s protocols have worked.

“We’ve had very few cases where we think it’s even possible it was spread here at school so we feel like our protocols have done exactly what they were intended to do which was limit spread here within the building,” Lindley said. “But it’s just here in the area right now.”

Indianola Public Schools also announced last week it would move online after several teachers and students had to quarantine due to being in close contact with someone who tested positive.

Superintendent Adam Newman said Indianola didn’t have enough substitutes or staff to adequately monitor students and moved online until after Thanksgiving week.

“Then, of course your worry is that they’ll end up being around the same people, family members and extended family members and that they’re going to say ‘oh, I have to quarantine,’” said Newman.

Newman said IPS followed the state’s recommendations for the academic year and will have students log-in virtually or receive pear packets while in virtual learning.

He said the district has taken extra steps to sanitize buildings and buses, trained teachers and students on technology to move online, and tried to maintain “as much normalcy” as possible to keep spirits up while following protocols.

Newman said the district will also deliver three meals per day to drop-off locations for students during the transition.

Wilburton, Kiowa and other area schools also announced a transition to virtual learning in the past week — while other schools remain committed to in-person instruction.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to have a place for our kids to go and be safe,” McAlester Public Schools Superintendent Randy Hughes said.

OSDH data showed McAlester had 1178 cumulative cases, 19 deaths, and 1017 assumed recoveries as of Tuesday.

McAlester Public Schools tracks cases in the district and reports them on a website (https://sites.google.com/mcalester.k12.ok.us/covid-19-information/mps-current-data).

As of Tuesday, MPS reported just three students and no employees testing positive with COVID-19 — but contact tracing led to a record 249 students and staff out due to being quarantined.

MPS required masks to be worn on campus, coordinated with the Pittsburg County Health Department for contact tracing protocols, offered multiple education methods, and implemented strict protocols and safety precautions due to the pandemic.

MPS also implemented a policy to move online if 35% of students and staff at any of the district’s sites are out due to COVID-19.

“I feel like we’ve been very blessed,” Hughes said. “I feel like our kids are safer at school than anywhere else.”

“Kids need to be at school,” Hughes added.

He said MPS will do everything it can to keep in-person instruction available — but the district offers blended courses, is offering virtual learning for next semester, and it’s piloting a distance model.

Hughes believes in-person attendance is the most effective education model and said MPS would shutdown if mandated by a state agency. But he wants to keep the doors open.

Crowder Public Schools Superintendent Robert Florenzano said his district has been fortunate to not have many COVID-19 cases and is still taking precautions with in-person instruction.

Canadian Public Schools Superintendent Mike Broyles said protocols in place should help his district stay open pending any closure mandated by a state agency.

Contact Adrian O’Hanlon III at aohanlon@mcalesternews.com

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