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Amid abuse concerns, limits on virtual school days advance


Citing concerns that virtual school days are being abused and are contributing to student learning loss, members of the House Common Education Committee have advanced legislation restricting the number of virtual days allowed.

“When we have got student outcomes that are so low, these virtual days have to be used as a last resort,” said state Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon. “Because we understand that oftentimes being in-person is what is best for the student.”

Under Senate Bill 1768, by state Sen. Kristen Thompson and Baker, the number of virtual days included in a school year would be capped.

As originally passed by the Oklahoma Senate, the bill prohibited the use of virtual days for any reason other than inclement weather, staff shortages caused by illness, and issues such as building maintenance problems.

But in the House Common Education Committee, the bill was amended to allow for up to 10 virtual days for those reasons. However, the amended bill retained language from the Senate version that requires schools to notify the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) of any virtual days. The agency would then have one week to determine if a virtual day was used properly. If not, the school would be required to implement a make-up day.

As originally filed, SB 1768 would have required schools to provide a minimum of five and a half hours of instruction to kindergarten to 8th-grade students and six hours to high school students on virtual days, and more than half of the online or digital instruction must be synchronous, meaning there must be “real-time interaction between a teacher and students as the primary format of instruction.”

The amended version passed by House committee members softened that language to say instead that virtual instruction “may include synchronous instruction, asynchronous instruction, or a combination of both in accordance with the policy adopted by the school district board of education.”

The bill would also require school boards to adopt a policy specifying how students who do not have Internet access at home would receive instruction virtually.

But even with those changes, some school officials continued to lobby against the bill’s passage.

“I have heard from so many superintendents, mostly in the rural areas, who are opposed to this no matter what changes you make,” said state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman.

Baker said most district leaders who have objected to the bill admit they use virtual days to recruit teachers.

“I want to be protective of teachers. I am one,” Baker said. “But some of these conversations have never revolved around students. They’ve only revolved around teachers. I want it to be about students.”

Oklahoma allows schools to provide just 165 days of instruction per year, so long as 1,080 hours of total learning occur over the course of the year. That’s three work weeks less instruction than what occurs in most states.

But some districts are effectively providing even fewer days of instruction by including numerous “virtual” days in their 165-day total.

State Rep. Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City, said she has received communication from numerous districts whose leaders oppose SB 1768.

“Very rarely do I hear anything about students in those letters and the actual learning going on,” West said. “I actually was left with the impression that learning was not taking place. ‘We don’t have connectivity.’ ‘It’s difficult if you’ve got multiple children to tune in to learn.’ Which I understand. But again, that is not why we pass legislation and that is not why the students are there—is to make it easy on the teachers, and I am a huge advocate for our teachers and the hard work that they do.”

She said SB 1768 opponents claim they will struggle to comply with the law because it is “difficult” to ensure students are learning on virtual days.

When the bill was debated in the Senate, several lawmakers noted that many “virtual days” at schools around the state amount to simply sending a student home with a few worksheets rather than true online learning and instruction.

Many districts have made virtual days routine to effectively shorten the workweek for staff.

Each year, Oklahoma public school districts must self-report school-calendar information to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Numbers were finalized for the 2022-2023 school year in June 2023.

Out of more than 500 public school districts in Oklahoma, more than 100 districts reported having at least one site where students had two work weeks (10 days) or more virtual days throughout the 2022-2023 school year with sites at more than 60 districts imposing distance learning for three or more work weeks. And there were 36 districts that reported having at least one site that went virtual for four work weeks that year, effectively shifting a full month of instruction online—if not more.

The Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition argued the number of virtual days reported by districts to the Oklahoma State Department of Education for the 2022-2023 school year was not accurate. But many districts that reported using several weeks of pre-scheduled virtual days continue to list numerous pre-planned virtual days on their current school-year calendars posted on the school districts’ own websites.

For example, OSDE data shows that the Millwood school district reported having 36 virtual days in the 2022-2023 school year and the district’s current 2024-2025 calendar includes “virtual Friday” every week of the school year, meaning 34 days are virtual out of 175 teaching days this year.

Similarly, the Wapanucka district reported 29 virtual days last year and its calendar for the 2023-2024 school year includes at least 23 prescheduled virtual days this year, all on Fridays.

State Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, said many school officials are quietly concerned about the abuse and misuse of virtual days that has become routine in many districts.

“I had a rural superintendent reach out to me concerned about some other districts around the state abusing some of these processes right here,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said the superintendent believes the overuse of virtual days is “harming student outcomes” and the superintendent is “frustrated” by the extensive misuse of virtual days.

“He’s a rural superintendent who’s very appreciative of what you’re trying to do,” Caldwell told Baker.

SB 1768 passed the House Common Education Committee on a 9-2 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. The bill now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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