El Reno High School students walk in front of their school building in late January.

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

‘Kids need to be in school:’ In-person Learning in El Reno, Oklahoma 

StateImpact toured El Reno High, Hillcrest Elementary Schools to figure out just how in-person learning worked

  • Robby Korth

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

A sign at the entrance of El Reno High School. Masks are required for students, staff and visitors at the district.

El Reno Public Schools hasn’t had guests all school year.

“We literally don’t let our parents come yet,” superintendent Craig McVay said.

But, the district isn’t trying to hide anything. This is a decision based on safety and preventing the spread of COVID-19. So McVay, a few other administrators and teachers toured StateImpact around their schools for several hours in late January to explore just how in-person school is going. 

It’s hardly been easy. But overall, students, teachers and staff expressed positivity toward in-person learning. 

Was masking perfect? No. Was social distancing always possible? No. Have students and teachers caught the coronavirus? Yes.

But what’s the alternative?

It’s online learning. And last fall sophomore Nate Karty did just that. It was a struggle, Karty said. So he decided to come back and is already noticing the results.

“My grades are coming up,” he said.

The numbers are stark and they’re scary. Last fall StateImpact tracked almost 900 announcements of positive cases in roughly 2/3 of Oklahoma’s school districts. The reality is those were probably significant undercounts. In El Reno, so far this school year, there have been almost 2,000 quarantines and hundreds of positive cases. 

But, the reality is the virus doesn’t appear to be running rampant. Less than 1% of those quarantines have resulted in a positive case.

“We feared the quarantine for our students, staff and faculty more than the actual virus,” superintendent McVay said. 

Even though there are bumps in the road, things are operating smoothly as the district continues to navigate school through the global pandemic.

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

El Reno High School students Nate Karty (left) and Maria Espinoza eat lunch together in the school’s cafeteria.

Lunchtime at El Reno High School

El Reno High School Principal Tim Pounds does just about every job here – including working the buffet line in the cafeteria.

The day of StateImpact’s visit, three cafeteria workers were out because of COVID-19 quarantine protocols. That means Pounds has to work as a food server. That’s a typical duty for administrators during the pandemic.

“Wherever they need us we try to step in and help,” Pounds said.

The main place teachers and staff are stepping in to help is in the classroom. Learning there looks a lot different than it used to. Masks are required and students are spaced out as much as possible.

The challenges are real, Pounds said. But worth it.

“It’s a day-to-day,” Pounds said. “But, overall it’s good. Kids want to be here.”

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

An English class at El Reno High School. Social distancing is often difficult in the district’s classrooms but masks are required.

Classroom learning during a pandemic

Kids need to be in school, said Pat Litiker, director of instructional leadership for El Reno Public Schools.

“When we teach kids, we teach them the curriculum, the content, the academics, but there’s that hidden curriculum they learn along the way, the social skills, the interaction with adults, with other kids, that they just learn how to be citizens,” Litiker said. “They learn how to be people by interacting. They don’t learn that in their home sitting in front of a computer.”

Given the transmission rates in El Reno, the CDC recommends only hybrid learning in high schools, and requires social distancing of six feet. But with more than two thirds of students going to school full-time, social distancing has been hard. 

“Things happen,” Litiker said. “But we put every safeguard in place we can to make it safe for kids to come and we want them to come.”

El Reno Public Schools has been offering full-time, in-person classes to all its students since the fall. Quarantines and time away from school are commonplace. That’s in addition to scheduling to keep students in cohorts, restricting use of water fountains and vending machines and requiring masks. 

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

Pat Litiker, director of instructional leadership for El Reno Public Schools.

Elementary school creates different challenges

Teacher Jerelyn Atchison is strumming her ukulele for a class full of masked-up three year olds.

It’s the kind of music time toddlers expect from their teacher. And even though it’s a little difficult to sing from behind a mask, Atchison is just happy to be in school after battling COVID-19 herself. 

Hillcrest is home to the youngest children in El Reno Schools. About 300 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students attend. 

After the coronavirus shut down schooling last spring, El Reno educators scrambled to make in-person school happen for this fall. They’re doing just that by keeping classes separated during lunchtime and recess and there’s a mask on every face – big and small. 

But coming back to school wasn’t as smooth as years prior for some teachers. Despite the new procedures, Atchison was scared. 

“I was terrified, actually, at the beginning,” she said. “They can’t put the mask on themselves and so we were literally touching 20 masks 10 times a day.”

But now students and teachers alike have gotten into the swing of things. And they spend less time on safety protocols and more time on learning.

Again, Litiker said, there are concerning interruptions related to quarantines.

“It breaks my heart more than anything when we have to quarantine the little bitty kids because they want to be in school, they want to come laugh, they want to come play,” he said. 

But those quarantines are necessary for safety, he said. El Reno has not adopted some of the more relaxed quarantine protocols allowed in Oklahoma like cancelling out the need to quarantine if students are wearing masks.

In-person school is necessary because online classes are impossible for 4-year-olds, pre-kindergarten teacher Lindy Harper said.

“You actually get an experience,” Harper said. “It’s not just a screen and listening or slightly interacting. I mean, it’s constant interaction and learning all day long,” Harper said.

El Reno girls basketball team

Basketball is a risky sport to play during a pandemic.

In fact, the CDC has even cautioned against playing indoor sports like basketball for the time being.

But the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association has allowed basketball to continue with some crowd restrictions.

Still, players like Tetona Blackowl actually have pulled themselves out of classes to attend online. The point guard said didn’t want the chaos of a school-related quarantine to get in the way of her hoop dreams. She hopes to lead her team to the state championship. 

It’s simply the better thing to do.

“Better for, like, the season, just for us to have a season, where I wouldn’t get quarantined so easily, just being in class with other people,” she said.

Quarantines are common. El Reno has had games postponed and cancelled because of potential exposures and was coming off a quarantine after an opponent tested positive. At the time of StateImpact’s tour, though, the squad was getting ready for a game that night.

But some things aren’t meant to be. Shortly after the interview, El Reno’s game that evening was cancelled. 

Their opponent had to pull out because of their own quarantine protocols.