Jamie Price smiles behind a leopard-print face mask before greeting students by name with a no-touch thermometer from cars outside of Parker Intermediate Center.

The principal at the McAlester school checks students' temperatures from cars in the drop-off zone and stamps the hands of those without a fever before they’re allowed to enter the building for the last week of summer school.

Price said the 83 summer school students have adjusted well as the district continues fine-tuning COVID-19 protocols ahead of the 2020-2021 academic year — as are the parents and staff.

“This has been a good trial run of everything we’re doing,” Price said.

McAlester Public Schools Board of Education members unanimously voted July 20 to require protective face coverings for the upcoming academic year. The Oklahoma State Department of Education voted last week to only make recommendations to districts statewide on protocols for returning to school.

A parent survey MPS conducted garnered 1,393 responses with 56.7% in favor of faculty and staff being required to wear masks, and 50.6% in favor of students being required to wear masks.

MPS got 276 responses to a staff survey with 57.2% in favor of faculty and staff wearing masks, and 53.6% in favor of students wearing masks.

The district also released its reopening plan with attendance options — including virtual, blended and distance learning — and safety protocols as precautions against the virus.

Price said staff members have worked to make new protocols more time efficient and convenient for students attending in-person.

Students have to use hand sanitizer as they enter a classroom for their next class. Teachers use sanitary spray on desks in-between classes and have students use sanitary wipes on their desks to start each class period.

It also helps to test different safety methods before the school year, she said.

“It makes a big difference that we’re able to test all these ideas out, and try them, and modify them before we get to the regular school year,” Price said.

ADJUSTING

Angi Williamson, a teacher at MPS, said wearing a mask gets a little hot, but she feels safer having a barrier.

MPS teacher Chrissy Guthrie said some students can struggle to hear her when she is at the front of the class, so she makes sure she’s more than 6 feet away before she takes off her mask for them to read lips and body language.

She said teachers continue adjusting to wearing a mask — taking a quick breather, giving their ears a break, keeping glasses from fogging, and more. But she’s glad the school is figuring out protocols and safety precautions for in between classes prior to the start of the school year so children can safely attend in-person.

“The kids really need that interaction, they need to see their friends, plus they need to see the teachers,” she said. She said student-teacher connection is lost in virtual learning and she believes face-to-face instruction helps students learn.

Rachel Fields said she feels safer about sending her child to fifth grade and she’s seen a good response from children having to wear protective face coverings.

Neeley Ramsey, a parent of an MPS fifth grade student, said said she doesn’t like wearing masks, but believes MPS requiring protective face coverings, social distancing and other CDC recommendations helps keep children safer.

She said children also seem to be adjusting to the masks well.

“The masks kind of stink but the kids are better at it than the adults are,” Ramsey said.

MPS fifth grader Kali Burow said she missed coming to school to see her friends and teachers — and she loves attending summer school despite having to wear a mask.

She doesn’t like wearing a mask because she likes showing her face, but she believes masks help keep germs from spreading.

“When we cough, it’s not going out into the air,” Burow said. “Somebody could go get my germs if I didn’t cover my mouth.”

MPS student Keaton Chaney said he doesn’t like wearing a mask either and it took time to adjust.

Chaney said he has to talk louder in class and masks feel uncomfortable, but he feels a little safer with them.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Price originally didn’t want to require protective face coverings for students.

She said teachers read facial expressions and body language to better understand students — if they understand lessons, if there’s potential problems, and more to handle a situation in the moment. She also didn’t want wearing a mask to wear on teachers and staff.

But Price wants to ensure multiple options and optimum safety for students during the pandemic.

“I would rather be in school and if part of that’s wearing a mask, then we’re going to wear a mask,” Price said.

After Oklahoma schools were forced to shutter campuses and finish the semester with virtual learning models last spring, online education options are still booming.

Price said the number of parents opting for virtual courses for Parker students this year jumped from three to 17.

She believes students benefit most from in-person attendance, but she is glad the district offers multiple options and is working to improve safety with the protocols.

If someone at the school tests positive for COVID-19, Price said the district will contact the Pittsburg County Health Department to start contact tracing.

Health department officials will then tell anyone within 6 feet of the person for more than 15 minutes if they need to go on watch or be quarantined.

Price said the school has seating charts to expedite the contact tracing process and thoroughly cleans areas where people are within close proximity for more than 15 minutes — classrooms, hallways, eating areas, etc. She said everyone wears masks unless they’re eating and must do their best to maintain 6 feet of distance.

The school also started playing car bingo — designed to keep hundreds of students from being crammed together as they wait to be picked up from school. Numbers are assigned to the vehicles on record as picking up each student. Students wait in the classroom as those numbers are announced and get to leave when their assigned number is announced.

Price said she believes the protocols help contain any potential spread of the virus and hopes to share more soon to relieve parents’ fears.

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

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