By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
Yukon Public Schools’ students will be back in classrooms starting next week.
The YPS Board of Education at its Sept. 8th meeting voted 4-1 to have students return to YPS school sites this month – instead of waiting until after fall break. Board President Suzanne Cannon voted no.
Pre-kindergarten through third grade students will return to classrooms on Wednesday, Sept. 16 and fourth through 12th graders will be back in the schools on Monday, Sept. 21.
That action was recommended by YPS Superintendent Dr. Jason Simeroth and fellow administrators.
Other options were to have all students back in-person Sept. 23 or to take no action and revisit the issue at the Oct. 3 board meeting – with an eye on returning to classrooms Oct. 20.
Board members referred to calls and emails they received from parents, many calling for schools to reopen for in-person learning.
“Tonight’s meeting was hard,” Board President Cannon said afterward. “We find ourselves in a situation where there are no good answers. A group of parents demanding to go back to school representing about 6% of our student population felt they had no choice at the beginning of the year.
“I heard from just as many parents who didn’t want to go back before the originally stated October date. My ‘no’ vote was for them and for our teachers who have no choice. Our district will move forward doing the best we can under circumstances none of us have ever faced before. We will be united as we practice flexibility and grant each other grace.”
During Tuesday night’s meeting, Cannon thanked patrons who reached out to her “respectfully” with “solution-oriented” e-mails and phone calls.
“I got 17 emails and seven phone calls,” she said. “And I was very happy to hear from all of them.”
Most of the Yukon school district’s estimated 8,800 students have been “distance learning” online through a Continuous Learning Plan (CLP), with YPS teachers providing the instruction using the district’s curriculum. The exception are 678 students who opted for the Yukon Virtual School, a semester-long commitment.
Oklahoma leaders recommend school districts in counties with 14.39 to 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population transition to alternative schedules, A-B rotations, hybrid, or distance learning in consultation with state health officials.
Canadian County has been between about nine and 12 cases per 100,000 population since mid-July, according to the state health department’s COVID alert map.
“From what we’re seeing, we’re going to have to accept the fact that we’re probably going to be around the 10% number for quite some time,” Board Member Leonard Wells said. “If we keep waiting for it to go below that (to return to in-person school), I think we’re going to be waiting a long time.”
Health and safety protocols – including wearing face coverings, social distancing, sanitizing procedures, and possible temperature checks – will be in place when students rejoin teachers at YPS school buildings.
Detailed guidelines also have been established for hallways, cafeterias, restrooms, assemblies, and bus routes for each site.
Only the students who have been taking CLP classes will return to the classrooms in what Dr. Simeroth is confident will be a smooth transition.
When these YPS students get back to school sites, the superintendent said they will continue learning the curriculum in class from where teachers left off online the day before.
The YPS board and administrators originally planned to start the 2020-21 school year in the traditional setting Aug. 13, then Aug. 20. Those plans changed in early August when YPS officials decided to keep students away from classrooms for at least nine weeks due to COVID-19 concerns, including positive tests and exposures among staff and students.
They planned for students to be away from school buildings until at least mid-October, but many YPS patrons convinced them to reopen classrooms sooner. The 4-1 vote came after an hour-long discussion during Tuesday’s meeting.
Yukon’s school superintendent thanked board members, who he noted “have been under some duress” in recent weeks.
“The decisions we make are going to be, first and foremost, for our kids, based on our kids, and only for our kids, to begin with,” Dr. Simeroth said. “Then we have the other considerations that we pile on top of there.
“But that’s where we always start – with our kids.”
YPS Board Vice President Chris Cunningham said all board members – no matter their opinion – are always thinking about the district’s students when making decisions.
“Everybody has the best interest of the kids in mind, number one,” said Cunningham, acknowledging that people will be unhappy with any decision in this situation.
“We can just do what we think is the best for the children and try to move forward.”
Parents have shared concerns with YPS board members about having to find childcare for their students who have had to stay at home since the school year began.
“There’s a lot of people who are having problems right now with kids staying home alone, kids having to be with the next-door neighbor, daycares not able to accommodate them, daycares trying to accommodate,” Cannon said. “Some daycares are doing a great job; some are doing the best they can.”
Parents and staff must be prepared for another possible closure should a new outbreak occur after classrooms and schools reopen this month.
“That’s not anything we can help,” YPS Board Clerk Michele Hawthorne said. “If we have to shut down, we have to shut down.
“It’s frustrating, but you’ve got to roll with it.”
YPS officials encourage district patrons to visit the “Return to Learn” page on the district’s website (www.yukonps.com) for more details on site plans.
The site features detailed information outlining criteria and procedures should students or staff test positive for COVID-19 or if classrooms or school sites must close due to illness.