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Area teachers show no sign of ending walkout

One week into an educator walkout, area teachers show no signs of diminishing despite pending consequences.

Most regional school buildings were shuttered for much of the week as teachers marched on the State Capitol to demand better funding for education. Superintendents have maintained this is a grassroots effort organized by the teachers, of which they have no control. But the longer schools remain closed, the more school district leaders have to scramble to make up days missed and schedule mandated teaching. 

Cache Superintendent Chad Hance said he doesn't see any sign of teachers agreeing to go back to work. From the beginning, he has continued to point out that this is a teacher-driven movement and he stands behind his teachers.

"We're not driving this ship," he said. "We don't have the answers for them. We have to wait until we see how our teachers feel. We're very supportive of our teachers and we'll work on how we're going to come back with an entry plan after all this takes place."

Hance's district continues to administer regular polls of faculty and staff to get gauge the interest in maintaining the walkout. As of the last poll last week, he said around 85 percent have committed to staying out until more is done from the state Legislature.

"For this, I don't see them coming back until they get the results," Hance said. "That's my gut feeling. I see them holding their signs on Main Street Cache and they're still set in their ways and are adamant about what they're doing."

Cache Public Schools is in better position than some districts to weather the walkout storm. As some debate the idea of adding minutes to the school day once teachers return to the classroom or adding days to the end of the school year, Hance and the Cache Public Schools Board of Education took the preemptive action of adding extra minutes to the school day to ensure that, up to a certain point in the year, the district can absorb these missed days.

"We looked at the numbers and we have a date that, if we came back on that day and continued with extended hours, we'd still be on schedule to get out on May 25," Hance said. "Anything after that, we're going into the last week of May and into the month of June, if we have to."

The missed class time means missed testing for many state-mandated tests. Hance hopes government officials will allow Oklahoma schools to extend the window during which students will take the tests once they return. He said the worst thing that could happen to students is for them to cram such important exams into a short amount of time. It wouldn't be fair to the students, nor the school districts. College-bound students are a bit more fortunate.

"Our juniors took the ACT on Tuesday," Hance said. "We have around 130 juniors and we had around 118 take a test. I thought the turnout was really great, considering the circumstances."

While the walkout continues, many parents are left trying to figure out what to do with their children while they go to work. Cache Public Schools will partner with local churches, including New Assembly of God, to provide activities for the children throughout the day. The final details still are being hashed out, but students will be able to enjoy a free breakfast and lunch  which are already provided during the walkout  and physical activity time at the church. The district had tentative plans to roll the partnership out this past week, but Hance said the status of the walkout was still up in the air at that time. Now that there's no signs of a conclusion on the horizon, he said the district wants to do what it can to help its students.

"The churches decided to sit down and give this thing a week," he said. "Now that it's gone past this week, our local churches are going to have this plan to watch the kids. We have our cafeteria open and we'll bus those kids to the cafeteria from the church so that they can get those meals and interaction."

Across the county, the story is similar among other smaller school districts. Elgin Public Schools Superintendent Nate Meraz said he's had to make the difficult decision to close the school district indefinitely  even as he describes the ongoing walkout as "fluid." There's many factors superintendents have to take into account, he said. Chief among them is how many teachers indicate in their poll responses that they will continue to participate in the walkout.

"We continue to poll our teachers on a daily basis, just to try to keep in tune," he said. "We're just watching and getting information out and polling the teachers to see what it's like. They're in communication with the (Oklahoma Educators Association). All of that mixes in together to make a decision. It's a unique situation."

Meraz said he sympathizes with his teachers. Education, he said, has been underfunded for at least a decade. He understands the issue teachers are facing and have had to deal with on a daily basis, but he also understand the frustration of those who have been caught in the middle, including the students.

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