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Hofmeister recommending Oklahoma public schools remain shuttered for 2019-20, distance learning to begin April 6

Oklahoma’s public school buildings would remain mothballed for the remainder of 2019-20 and distance learning would begin for students April 6, if the state Board of Education approves.

The new recommendation from State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister will be considered at a special state board meeting set for Wednesday morning.

“Our districts have begun planning their alternative delivery methods to support student learning as they prepare to reconnect students with their teachers in adaptive ways,” Hofmeister said in a news release. “We are determined to support our Pre-K through high school students as well as English learners, special education students and those who need reinforced skills or additional enrichment. We recognize this reality will present challenges for many families and districts, but these are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures.”

If approved, locally elected school boards would determine whether students have earned academic credit and met graduation requirements.

Beginning April 6, districts will be expected to provide distance learning for the remainder of the school year, but those offerings are expected to vary according to each district’s capacity, including “significant technology limitations” in some districts, and the needs of their students.

About that, Hofmeister said: “There will be a wide range of approaches and it will be far from ideal, but necessary as we embrace these changes and even sacrifice to protect the public health of our communities.”

Districts must first provide “assurances” to the Oklahoma State Department of Education that their distance learning plans include English learners and special education students.

The state Education Department will provide resources and guidance, and OETA, Oklahoma’s educational public TV network, will help by broadcasting instructional programming during the day for the state’s pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students.

The state Board of Education already authorized the mandatory closure of all public schools from March 17 through April 5.

Hofmeister said continuing to keep school buildings closed to in-person instruction and extracurricular activities while coming up with a coordinated “continuous learning plan” for the remainder of the year is the right thing to do.

“This coordinated, swift and thoughtful action will help safeguard the health and well-being of our communities, students and professionals in public schools. We must do absolutely everything in our power to reduce transmission of coronavirus,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Education has already granted waivers from federal laws and regulations to permit continued school meal service for qualifying students and to suspend standardized testing and Oklahoma School Report Cards for the 2019-20 school year.

On Wednesday, the state board will consider applying for a host of additional waivers for flexibility with school calendars and restrictions on the use of funds.

Shortly after the announcement, Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist emailed parents and employees about the news.

“We care about every single one of you — our students, our team, our families,” Gist wrote. “We love you, and we want you to be safe and healthy. We recognize the enormity of Superintendent Hofmeister’s recommendation, and we have been working urgently over the last week to put plans in place to support students and families through a longer closure.”

Gist said TPS will continue to provide free meals to kids during a longer shutdown and that educators are working on plans to support student learning and engagement after April 6.

The district also is focused on addressing the litany of concerns from students, families and employees about the unprecedented situation. Officials are preparing a list of frequently asked questions for high school juniors and seniors who are making post-secondary plans but don’t know how to proceed.

“We know that the uncertainty of this situation — especially when combined with this unprecedented experience — can be difficult and scary for all of us,” Gist said. “Our commitment to you is to continue to share what we know for certain as soon as we know it, to answer your questions and address your concerns to the best of our ability, and to do all that we can to support everyone in our city as we make our way through this challenging time.”

Sand Springs Public Schools Superintendent Sherry Durkee said her district has been developing a remote learning plan in the event schools don’t reopen, though Monday’s news still took her by surprise.

The plan involves utilizing Sand Springs’ current virtual program, which offers full-time and blended online options for students in all grades.

Although the virtual program isn’t equipped to meet the needs of low-income families who lack access to internet and technology at home, Durkee said the district would do its best to minimize inequities.

“I’m not going to say it’ll be an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but what we do in Sand Springs is we put kids first,” she said. “We’re going to provide in the best of our ability a program with integrity.”

Owasso Superintendent Amy Fichtner said she can only imagine how difficult it was to draft this recommendation and thanked state education leaders for helping districts navigate through this “unprecedented situation together.”

“Owasso Public Schools will be doing what so many of our sister districts will be doing,” Fichtner said in a statement. “We will strategically use the resources available to us to best meet the learning needs of our students.”

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Gallery: Take a break from the news and enjoy pictures from Philbrook's gardens

Video: Oklahoma schools continue to feed students during the COVID-19 shutdown

Area schools begin free meal pickup, materials for home-bound learning because of COVID-19

Thousands of kids went back to school across Tulsa on Monday, but the doors were locked and classes were not in session.

The offer of free breakfast and lunch or at-home learning materials drew full carpool lanes amid the mandatory, statewide school shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karla Gutierrez and her 10- and 1-year-old children were among the steady stream of cars in the drive-through meal line at Ellen Ochoa Elementary, 12000 E. 31st St.

Gutierrez cleans houses for a living, but in the past three weeks, all of her clients have canceled.

“We came because there isn’t a lot of milk or food in the stores and to save what we have for later,” she said. “My husband, thankfully, has been working. He’s in construction. Hopefully, that keeps up.”

Tulsa Public Schools distributed about 8,000 breakfasts and lunches Monday. The district established 40 grab-and-go sites across the city and sent its bus drivers to about 170 bus stops, staying at each location for either five minutes or until they ran out of food.

TPS will continue to offer breakfast and lunch for students 18 and younger from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays until at least April 3. All locations and times are posted on the district’s website at tulsaschools.org/mealsites.

Numerous other suburban districts also are distributing grab-and-go meals for students. Sperry Public Schools, for instance, is providing sacked breakfasts and lunches between 11 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday in front of its campus.

Union Public Schools is offering students breakfast and lunch in to-go bags from 9:30-11:30 a.m. weekdays.

Lisa Griffin, the district’s director of child nutrition, was among the team of five employees running milk cartons and brown bags to open car windows. By the end of the two hours, 1,440 children had received breakfast, lunch and four cartons of milk at three pickup sites across the district, including 657 at Ochoa.

“We did mostly nonperishables today — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sunflower seeds, cheese sticks, apple sauce, baby carrots, cereal — so we could get an idea of the numbers before we begin heat-and-serve meals tomorrow,” Griffin said. “Our supplier offered us a bunch of free produce because of the restaurant closures, so we’ll also have fresh mango, kiwi, iceberg lettuce, apples and broccoli.”

Cars, SUVs and pickups carried children, some donning surgical masks, though children do not have to be present for meal pickup.

“We’re here to feed the kids; the whole thing is to not get them exposed to anything,” Griffin said.

Shena Franklin came for backup for her four kids, who were with her.

“They’re eating me out of house and home!” she said, laughing.

Principal Rita Long was glad to see them all and to meet so many family members.

“What’s your baby’s name?” Long squealed, asking a boy about the tiny white Shih Tzu in his lap in the passenger seat.

“It’s almost therapeutic to see so many familiar faces,” Long said. “It all happened so quickly, we didn’t really get to say goodbye, so we’re all talking about how to stay connected to our families.”

Priscilla Lewis was one of the first parents to take advantage of the grab-and-go lunch offerings at Clinton West Elementary in west Tulsa. The mother of seven rolled down her van window and grabbed a dozen food bags from a Tulsa Public Schools child nutrition worker wearing a protective mask and gloves.

The free meals are especially meaningful to Lewis, whose family is bringing in less income. Her husband, a sales contractor, hasn’t received a check in weeks, and she’s relying on coupons and tight budgeting to pay the bills.

“Right now, we don’t have that much money,” she said. “Work isn’t coming like it used to. So I’m really appreciative of what they’re doing here. Any bit helps. Any food to be able to help the kids out means a lot.”

Lewis said she plans to keep coming back each day until school reopens or the meal service is no longer available.

Jennifer Reyes also showed up at Clinton West on Monday morning to make sure her two elementary-age kids have enough food the next day.

Money is tight lately for her family because they just bought a house before this all started and work has slowed for them, as well.

“For those of us getting laid off or who can’t work as much, this is so helpful,” Reyes said. “It’s bad enough being stuck in the house, even though we’re not technically quarantined. As the stores are being depleted, it is a big help that they’re feeding the children while they’re on extended break. It takes a load off us parents not having to buy so much stuff.”

At Holland Hall, 5666 E. 81st St., neither breakfast nor lunch was on Monday’s menu. The private school is set to begin remote learning Tuesday, so teachers were on hand for parents and students to pick up the materials they’ll need, in addition to what they’ll be doing online.

Kindergarten teachers Stephany Ward and Jim Narlock greeted parents pulling up in the circle drive outside Holland Hall’s primary school building.

Each one got a big white envelope of handwriting assignments and practice worksheets in math and literacy.

“Most stuff is online, like ABC practice games — stuff that kids are already familiar with because it’s what we have been using in our classes,’’ Ward said.

Outside Holland Hall’s high school, pottery teacher Laurie Spencer greeted her students with a big smile and striped plastic sacks full of clay.

“There’s 3 pounds of regular clay, plus a little bag of oil clay, which is reusable, so they can create something, photograph it, turn it in and then reuse it the next day,” Spencer said. “I’m not going to do anything that needs to be fired, but I wanted to include some hands-on (activities) because that is one of the main reasons they’re taking this class.”

Students said they were grateful for any way to continue their studies.

“It’s really nice to have the opportunity,” said senior Stephanie Maldonado, 17. “This way, it won’t hold me back.”

Junior Mikey Ferguson, also 17, said young people just have to accept what is happening right now.

“If it were up to me, school would never be canceled because AP classes get messed up; it’s just a hassle for everyone,” he said.

Gallery: How coronavirus has affected life around Tulsa

Gallery: How coronavirus has affected life around Tulsa

Local organizations set up to take donations of medical supplies

As local efforts to gather supplies for hospitals, first-responders and other health care professionals dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak ramped up Monday, details of the state’s plan to establish a donation program remained unclear.

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Sunday that the state would set up a process this week by which businesses and individuals could donate personal protective equipment. But as of late Monday, the Governor’s Office had shared no additional information on how the program would work.

A Tulsa Health Department spokeswoman, meanwhile, said the organization is not actively soliciting donations but is accepting them from corporations, industries and medical facilities.

“For example, if there is a dentist office that has supplies because they are not operating (or) doing elective procedures, we can accept those,” said Leanne Stephens.

THD is not accepting donations from individuals.

“For health and safety reasons, we are unable to accept donations from households or individuals, but we understand many people in our community want to help in some way,” Stephens said. “Consider donating blood or making a financial contribution to the Tulsa Area COVID-19 Response Fund established by Tulsa Community Foundation and Tulsa Area United Way.”

Donors are asked to call THD at 918-582-WELL to make arrangements to drop off equipment and materials.

Donated supplies must be new. Needed supplies include face shields, goggles, CDC/NIOSH (approved-for-medical-use) N95 masks/respirators, impervious gowns, Tyvek suits, procedure and surgical masks, hand sanitizer, hospital disinfectant and infrared thermometers.

Tulsa Community College has already begun to pitch in. The school sent truck loads of masks, gloves, gowns and other equipment to hospitals and health care providers in northeast Oklahoma.

“Several members of the advisory board in need of personal protective equipment for health care workers reached out to TCC faculty regarding the college’s supply, and others have posted a call on social media,” the college said in a news release Monday. “These hospitals are TCC’s education partners that provide clinical experiences, serve as instructors, and offer paid internships for TCC students.”

The local effort to gather medical supplies is not limited to public entities.

Medical Supplies Network Inc. announced it will be accepting donations of medical supplies from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at its office at 1123 Erie Ave. The nonprofit was founded by the Rotarians in Rotary District 6110.

Bruce Lively runs the operation.

“My supplies were starting to dwindle,” he said. “My thought behind the process was, ‘If I run out of masks, then I can’t give them to someone else. You as a private individual, where would you take it to?’ There is no place to take anything to, so I said, ‘Let’s set it up.’

“... and the hospitals, the clinics, the EMS people, they can call MSNI and they can come over and pick up what they need.”

MSNI accepts donations from dentists, construction firms and other businesses that use health care equipment.

In addition to medical equipment, Lively needs volunteers to man the drive-thru drop-off center he is setting up to ensure that proper social distancing practices are maintained.

Persons interested in helping should call 918-639-1492 and leave a message.

The Eastern Oklahoma Chapter of the American Institute of Architects has started a drive to collect protective gear and equipment, including gloves, masks, goggles and coveralls, from area contractors and construction firms.

As part of that, on Wednesday the AIA will host a special drive-thru drop-off. It will be from 3-7 p.m. at the AIA office, 633 S. Boston Ave.

Donors can also arrange to have someone pick up their items.

Francis Wilmore, the drive organizer, reports that since he began contacting local contractors Friday he’s collected around 200 pieces of equipment.

For more information about the drive and items being sought, go to aiaeok.org or call 918-845-2422.

Dr. Jill Wenger with Ascension St. John Hospital was happy to hear of the local donation efforts Monday.

“All the hospitals are doing heroic jobs to try to preserve the PPE,” she said. “Our leaders are doing everything they know how to get us more, but anybody who has N95s, anybody who has a face shield, anybody who has additional sterile gowns — they don’t even have to be sterile, just isolation gowns — we could use all of that for sure.”

Tulsan Sarah Kobos has already made a donation — to her friend Jill Wenger. Kobos said she recently came across eight new, packaged N95 masks in her garage.

“I basically took my masks and dropped them off at her house,” she said. “I didn’t want to wait for all of the official wheels to be set in motion for a bigger event.”

She said she hopes more people will look around to see what they might be able to donate. As she learned, you never know.

“It never occurred to me that an individual might have something that is useful,” Kobos said.

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Tensions rise as $2 trillion virus aid stalls in Washington

WASHINGTON — Tensions flared Monday as Washington strained to respond to the worsening coronavirus outbreak, with Congress arguing over a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package and an impatient President Donald Trump musing openly about letting the 15-day shutdown expire.

As the U.S. braces for an onslaught of sick Americans, and millions are forced indoors to avert a spike that risks overwhelming hospitals, the most ambitious federal intervention in modern times is testing whether Washington can swiftly halt the pandemic on the home front. By evening, it appeared there would be no further votes Monday, and talks would push into the night.

“It’s time to get with the program, time to pass historic relief,” said an angry Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he opened the chamber after a nonstop weekend session that failed to produce a deal. “This is a national emergency.”

Fuming, McConnell warned Democrats — pointedly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to quit stalling on “political games,” as he described Democratic efforts to steer more aid toward public health and workers.

Trump, who has largely been hands off from the negotiations, weighed in late Monday from the White House briefing room, declaring that Congress should vote “for the Senate bill as written,” dismissing any Democratic proposal.

“It must go quickly,” Trump said. “This is not the time for political agendas.”

The president also sounded a note of frustration about the unprecedented modern-day effort to halt the virus’s march by essentially shutting down public activities in ways that now threaten the U.S. economy.

Even though Trump’s administration recommended Americans curtail activities starting a week ago, the president said: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15-day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

“Let’s go to work,” he said. “This country was not built to be shut down. This is not a county that was built for this.”

Trump said that he may soon allow parts of the nation’s economy, in regions less badly hit by the virus, to begin reopening, contradicting the advice of medical and public health experts across the country, if not the globe, to hunker down even more firmly.

Pelosi assailed Trump’s idea and fluctuating response to the crisis.

“He’s a notion-monger, just tossing out things that have no relationship to a well coordinated, science-based, government-wide response to this,” Pelosi said on a health-care conference call. “Thank God for the governors who are taking the lead in their state. Thank God for some of the people in the administration who speak truth to power.”

The White House team led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin worked on Capitol Hill for a fourth straight day of talks as negotiators narrowed on a bipartisan accord.

In the nearly empty building, the virus continued to strike close. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who announced he tested positive for coronavirus, is now among five senators under self-quarantine. Several other lawmakers have cycled in and out of isolation. And the husband of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is in a hospital with pneumonia after testing positive, she said Monday.

With a wary population watching and waiting, Washington labored under the size and scope of a rescue package — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Democrats are holding out as they argue the package is tilted toward corporations and should do more to help suddenly jobless workers and health care providers with dire needs.

In particular, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants constraints on the largely Republican-led effort to provide $500 billion for corporations. Democrats call that a “slush fund.”

Yet, he said, “We’re very close to reaching a deal.” Even so, another attempt to move the package forward snagged, blocked as Democrats refused to quit negotiating.

Democrats won one concession — to provide four months of expanded unemployment benefits, rather than just three as proposed, according to an official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. The jobless pay also would extend to self-employed and so-called gig workers.

But Republicans complained Democrats were holding out for more protections for workers, wanting assurances that corporations taking aid will commit to retaining employees.

Pelosi came out with the House Democrats’ own sweeping $2.5 trillion bill, which would provide $1,500 directly to the public and $200 billion to the states, as governors are pleading for aid. She urged Senate negotiators “to move closer to the values” in it. Trump has balked at using his authority under the recently invoked Defense Protection Act to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators, even as he encourages them to spur production. “We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

From his home, Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden criticized Trump for stopping short of using the full force of emergency federal authority .

“Trump keeps saying he’s a wartime president,” Biden said in an online address. “Well, start acting like one.”

On the economic front, the Federal Reserve announced Monday it will lend to small and large businesses and local governments as well as extend its bond-buying programs as part of a series of sweeping steps to support the flow of credit through an economy ravaged by the viral outbreak.

Central to the emerging rescue package is as much as $350 billion for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. The package also proposes a one-time rebate of about $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, as well as extended unemployment benefits.

Hospitals would get about $110 billion for the expected influx of sick patients, said Mnuchin. But Democrats are pushing for more health-care dollars for the front-line hospitals and workers.

The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket and financial markets are eager for signs that Washington can soften the blow of the health-care crisis and what experts say is a looming recession.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

COVID-19 count: 11 cases in Tulsa County, up 14 across Oklahoma for 81 total

Confirmed cases of the condition caused by novel coronavirus jumped by 14, totaling 81 for the state with 11 in Tulsa County.

There have been two deaths and 15 hospitalizations due to COVID-19. There have been a total of 81 confirmed cases in Oklahoma and two cases considered out-of-state. State health officials noted a high incidence of cases in the adult age group, 18 to 49 years old. About 44% of confirmed cases have occurred in that group.

“Ultimately, social distancing and other active measures are a personal responsibility for each and every person,” said Cody McDonell, state Health Department spokesman. “It takes everyone implementing these steps to help flatten the curve and keep outbreaks like this from escalating.”

Most of the state’s cases are in Oklahoma, Cleveland and Tulsa counties. Oklahoma and Cleveland counties, as of Monday afternoon, had 29 and 16 cases, respectively.

Oklahoma is experiencing widespread community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social distancing, among other measures, remains the doctor’s orders. State health officials implore people of all age groups to stay home and practice social distancing.

“If transmission of the virus is allowed to go unmitigated, cases will increase drastically,” McDonell said. “This sharp increase in transmission could have a negative impact on hospitals and other health care facilities due to an influx of patients.”

The target goal, at the moment, is to mitigate the impact on the health care system in Oklahoma. Slowing transmission rates will minimize strain on the health care system over time, McDonell said.

Social distancing means staying out of group or congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining a distance of 6 feet from others when possible. Congregate settings are public places where close contact may occur, such as grocery stores, movie theaters, churches and stadiums.

Included in the efforts to stymie the transmission rate is closing bars, restaurants and entertainment venues; closing schools and universities; and isolating at home.

Public health officials recommend limiting time out and about in the community to essential trips, exercising enhanced personal hygiene practices, avoiding those who are ill and washing hands.

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More than 14,000 U.S. deaths: How is the world handling the coronavirus pandemic?