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Dear Tulsans,

I am in my dream job, and I love it. However, I cannot say strongly enough how much I do not want to be superintendent during a global pandemic. Our Tulsa Board of Education did not enter public service because they wanted to lead through a time of uncertainty, fear, and collective trauma. I know that you do not want to be a a parent, a student, or a teacher during this international crisis either. We are all struggling with the considerations and decisions that lie ahead, and we all desperately want to see our children safely back in school.

This evening, our board will consider my recommendation to begin carefully phasing Tulsa Public Schools students back into versions of in-person learning. Let us consider this first: neither the board nor I should be in the position of making decisions about the public health of our city, state, and country. Our role as a school district is to educate children, and that is a monumentally difficult role. This fall, we are also working with public health professionals and medical experts to make the best-informed public safety decisions we can on behalf of Tulsa children, their families, and our team members.

We — the board, my team, and I, along with thousands of district leaders across the country —  are, unfortunately, the best experts we have for safely opening schools during a global pandemic. Across our state and country, school districts are using a patchwork of safety protocols and practices and are leaning on each other to figure out how to “do” school in the COVID world. I know that I am not alone in understanding how valuable it would be to have consistent health and medical guidance for our country’s schools.

Instead, here we are, and our children are depending on us to provide those safe learning spaces where they can build life-changing relationships with caring adults and grow and thrive alongside their peers. Our teachers and other team members need for us to create the safest conditions possible. So, we understand our responsibilities and are leading as best we can with inconsistent data, uncertain science, and many disparate and very strong opinions surrounding us.

One question I’ve been hearing a lot lately is: “what’s the number?” As we plan toward our return to in-person learning, Tulsans want a clear and simple measure for decisions about whether students remain in distance learning or shift to hybrid or in-person learning.

While our seven-day rolling averages are a critical measure of conditions around community spread, public health is more than COVID infection rates. Our children, particularly our teenagers, are struggling with social isolation. Nationally, nine out of ten young people are showing signs of moderate to severe depression. Also, without opportunities for children to engage with adults outside of the home, child abuse reporting has decreased by up to 50% in some regions, and reported incidents have increased in severity. We know that this pandemic has exacerbated economic instability across our country, and we know that parental job loss can increase a child’s risk for mental health problems. We know that families from all walks of life are struggling.

We must also ensure conditions for our team members are as safe as we can make them. We cannot open schools without sufficient personal protective equipment for our teachers, school leaders, support professionals, and students. We need enough teachers in classrooms and support professionals at our buildings and sites to operate our school system that spans 178 square miles with nearly 100 sites and schools to keep running. For our district, providing masks and transportation to our students throughout the pandemic is essential.

We must, of course, also consider more immediate public health metrics: positivity, testing, case, and quarantine rates; local hospital capacity; and the continuously evolving research and guidance.

Tulsa is very fortunate to have one of the best teams in the country at our district and in our schools. I have unwavering confidence in our team, our board, and in our students and their families. I love them, and I love Tulsa.

I know that we have it in us to get through this together and even to emerge stronger. We will have to come together by staying apart. The science is clear about what works to prevent community spread. If every Tulsan wears their mask, washes their hands, and watches their distance, we can keep our community healthier, bring down Tulsa County’s infection rates, and get our children back to the in-classroom learning experiences that they need and deserve.


Stay safe.

Signature of Deborah Gist

Deborah A. Gist