Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister listens to Gov. Kevin Stitt speak during a March news conference at the state Capitol. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World file

When elementary students at Sapulpa Public Schools left for spring break Thursday, they took home a large stack of assignments in case the coronavirus shuts down the district.

Sapulpa educators are ready to implement a temporary remote-learning plan in the event that a local COVID-19 outbreak forces spring break to last longer than intended. They’ve prepared virtual coursework for students in sixth grade and up and a week’s worth of take-home work for students in fifth grade and below.

Although Gov. Kevin Stitt has encouraged schools to remain open, Sapulpa Public Schools spokesman Aaron McColoch said the rapid spread and unpredictable nature of COVID-19 made it necessary to take every precaution.

“We hope we don’t have to do this, but in the event we do, we’re prepared,” McColoch said. “It’s not a perfect plan by any stretch, but at least this way our kids will get some instruction if we do need to go virtual.”

Public and private schools across the Tulsa metro are ready to cancel classes if health officials deem it necessary in the coming weeks. Holland Hall closed three days early for spring break after several people came into contact with a COVID-19 patient, and the school will move to remote instruction through April 3. Muskogee Public Schools announced Thursday afternoon the closure of schools effective Friday. Oklahoma City Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, also canceled Friday classes.

The lack of school next week will present an additional challenge as many students and educators embark on trips around the world during spring break.

Superintendents have joined the state Education Department and health officials in urging students and employees to avoid school for two weeks if they travel to high-risk countries during spring break to help prevent an outbreak.

Union Public Schools Superintendent Kirt Hartzler was one of many district leaders to issue a letter this week advising anyone visiting China, South Korea, Italy, Iran or Japan to “self-quarantine for a period of 14 calendar days before returning to school.”

Colleges are taking it a step further. The University of Tulsa announced on Wednesday all classes will be moved online for at least two weeks following spring break to prevent travelers from infecting their peers. Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma followed suit Thursday, telling students to take their class materials home for the break.

Hartzler said that level of precaution is much more difficult for K-12 schools due to the age and dependency of their students. With that said, Union is exploring its own remote-learning options if schools need to close.

“This is uncharted territory for all of us,” he said. “I think the operative word here is that we all are going to have to be very, very flexible and be able to pivot in terms of whatever plans we’ve laid now verses what might come upon the hour or even with each day.”

Broken Arrow and Jenks are among the districts pushing the 14-day self-quarantine request. So is Tulsa Public Schools, which also canceled all of its sponsored international travel arrangements through the end of April.

Many haven’t imposed a total travel ban yet. Owasso Public Schools is examining planned activities on a case-by-case basis.

Owasso has remained diligent in its preparation and communication efforts, sending out three letters to families since March 3. The latest, which was distributed Tuesday, concerned spring break travel safety and included several precautionary steps for returning travelers. The letter also urged parents to keep their children home if they feel sick after the break.

“We don’t feel like it’s our place to tell people where they can and cannot go during their free time,” Owasso Public Schools spokesman Jordan Korphage said. “But what we can do is help educate and help provide those resources and that guidance from our Health Department and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to help them make the best choice for not only their children, but for everyone in our district.”

Although districts are encouraging a two-week quarantine for student travelers, there has been some confusion about how that will affect attendance.

Owasso Superintendent Amy Fichtner said schools must record all absences regardless of reason but would apply “common sense and grace” to support students under quarantine. Hartzler said he would expect the state Education Department to provide guidance for districts if it gets to that point.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the impact on attendance is twofold. One issue involves required attendance for grades or course completions, which she said is determined locally and not governed by state law.

Hofmeister advised districts to examine their policies to ensure students are not penalized “for families doing what is best for their children in keeping them out of school.”

The second issue is chronic absenteeism, which is one of the indicators contributing to schools’ overall grades in the annual Oklahoma School Report Cards.

“We are committed to factoring absenteeism in a way that does not negatively impact school report cards due to potential quarantines or student absences resulting from COVID-19,” Hofmeister said in a statement. “Districts and families must focus on the health and safety of students and staff. This is a rapidly developing situation; we will share additional guidance and resources with schools and other education stakeholders as it becomes available.”

Gallery: How is the world responding to the coronavirus outbreak?

Editor's note: Information about Holland Hall moving to virtual school after spring break was added after publication.

Kyle Hinchey 918-581-8451

Twitter: @kylehinchey

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