Barnsdall, Avant push back start of classes

Robert Smith rsmith@pawhuskajournalcapital.com

Barnsdall Public Schools has delayed the beginning of classes for the 2020-21 school year until next Monday, Aug. 24. The school district originally planned to begin classes Aug. 10, but changed that in late July to Aug. 17.

The latest postponement relates directly to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, Superintendent Jeff Lay said.

“We had two staff members test positive for COVID-19, and several exposed to them (meeting the within 6 feet for 15 minutes criteria),” Lay said in an email message Monday. “Being a small school, we had to delay another week until the quarantine and isolation periods expire for those staff members.”

Lay added, however, that if results of COVID-19 tests for exposed staff members are adverse, the district will look at beginning classes on a virtual basis.

“Our plan is to open next Monday, August 24, but the results of COVID tests from the exposed staff members could change that decision,” Lay said. “If we are unable to open next Monday, our plan will be to begin virtual learning for all students.”

COVID-19 is also having an influence on Barnsdall’s enrollment numbers, Lay said.

“Yes, COVID has affected our enrollment numbers,” he said. “We’ve had some families decide to join Epic Charter Schools or homeschool out of concerns about the pandemic. We’ve also had several students move out of our district because of family situations not related to COVID. We are down about 25 students from this time last year.”

Nearby Pawhuska Public Schools came into this week with plans to begin classes Aug. 20. Pawhuska had not shifted its opening date, but it had made alterations in its school-opening plan. The district’s board of education voted last week to adopt a 2020-21 learning plan that mandates face masks for all students, teachers, administrators and visitors to school campuses. Superintendent David Cash made clear that no school-related activity, no matter how popular, is immune from aggressive action if students and faculty become ill.

Assistant Superintendent Beverly Moore said Monday about mid-afternoon that “as of right now, this minute, we’re on,” which reflected that nothing had yet changed the district’s plans. She added that the board of education would be meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and could be influenced by an increase in COVID-19 positive tests over the weekend.

In Avant, which serves some 90 children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, the school year is not scheduled to begin until Sept. 8, out of a sense of caution about COVID-19.

Superintendent Mindy Englett said a recent handful of positive COVID-19 tests in the town of about 300 led to school staff members being exposed.

“Our problem was nobody in Avant had it for this whole time, and a few weeks ago there were four or five cases all of a sudden,” Englett said. Some of those who tested positive were members of employee families, she said. As a result, staff members needed to be tested.

“We’re all back this week,” Englett said, noting that tests conducted on school employees came back “negative.”

The important thing about delaying the start of the school year was to provide enough time to see what the test results would be, she said.

Englett anticipated that small, rural schools like Avant are likely to feel a bigger impact whenever there is a positive COVID-19 test, because the infection of just a few students or community members is, by percentage, a much bigger deal.