By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Oxford High School students returned to school this week, but not to the high school. OHS is sharing the middle school building on an alternating hybrid schedule until Jan. 21, while renovations finish at the high school. The tentative plan is to return to the OHS building the week of January 24.
(Athletic practices resumed at OHS on Jan. 10. The school plans to host athletic competitions again as soon as Jan. 24.)
“We hope this slow transition together at OMS will help in the healing process and ease our high school students back in a familiar academic setting,” Supt. Tim Throne said in an announcement detailing the plan.
The district hosted two telephone town halls last week to describe these changes and to take input and questions from the community. Nearly 4,000 participants joined the two meetings Jan. 5 and Jan. 6.
“We figured OMS would be a neutral location while still being a school to help with the eventual transition back to the high school,” said Deputy Superintendent Ken Weaver who presented the tentative plan to return to OHS during the town hall.
In creating the plan, Weaver said the district consulted trauma, mental health and security experts, school districts that have had similar traumatic incidents, teachers and union leaders. They have taken input from parents, students and community members through numerous emails, comments and surveys.
“The half-days at Oxford Middle School will be a mixture of learning about stress and trauma,” Weaver said. “We will also be conducting some social-emotional activities with the kids. The full days at Oxford High School the week of the 24th will be more of the same, but a little more intense as we slowly try to get back into more of a routine as we finish first semester.”
Returning to school at OMS is not mandatory. “That is up to each individual family to decide,” Weaver said. “We encourage you, if they can, to be there. But if they are not ready, they do not have to.”
The district is offering flexibility to OHS students for how they want to return to school. Students will have the option to take their classes online if they are not ready to return in person. They will be allowed to transition back to in-person if and when they feel ready.
“If an individual wants to commit to coming back to OHS in-person but finds it difficult to transition back as quickly as the others, they will be able to do remote instruction during the first few weeks until they feel comfortable enough to come in,” Weaver said.
The online classes would be taken through Oxford Virtual Academy, but students would remain registered at OHS for the rest of the year. This accommodation will allow students to remain on track to graduate from Oxford High School.
While there is no deadline, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Jill Lemond, who handles student enrollment, discouraged the idea of flipping back and forth once they make a decision. “It does take a toll on the student and the progression of their coursework . . . the later it is in the semester, the longer we wait to make that decision, the harder it is to catch up.”
The district will host three open houses for students and families to visit the high school next week to see the changes made to the building. In a slideshow presentation during the town hall, Weaver highlighted some of the changes.
“We were very intentional in our design decisions,” Weaver said. “We consulted with mental health professionals and architects familiar with the Oxford high school.”
During the Nov. 30 incident, “there was extensive damage to the building from the south end to the north end of the 200-hallway, the hallway that runs along North Oxford Road.”
Carpeting in the hallways and classrooms in the entire academic wing (over two-thirds of the building) were changed out, ceiling tiles were replaced, hallway walls and some ceilings were painted a light blue. They used calming colors textures mixed with Oxford colors and logos. Several Oxford Wildcat wall murals were added.
The bathroom where the incident ended will not be allowed to be used for the remainder of the school year. “In the summertime we will address what to do with this bathroom,” Weaver said.
Athletic practices resumed at OHS on Jan. 10, though students will not have access to the rest of the building during practices. The school plans to host athletic competitions again as soon as Jan. 24.
When students return to OHS, they will not be using lockers. “That is an emotional safety decision because the sound of the doors closing, we heard from experts, can be very traumatic for students and staff,” said Assistant Superintendent Jill Lemond.
Law enforcement will continue to be present in buildings throughout the district “for the foreseeable future.”
Each district building has a designated “safe room” for any student or staff member experiencing anxiety or grief who needs a time out.
The clear backpacks are likely only temporary. “We have been researching the efficacy of clear backpacks and whether or not they are safer,” Lemond said. “What we do know for certain is many people feel safer with them in use.”
As further physical security measures, the district is also considering the use of metal detectors and ammunition-detecting dogs, but further research and discussion is needed, Lemond said. “Personally, I’ve heard from dozens of parents both in support and against metal detectors in our high school. This is a very nuanced issue.”
District administrators answered parent questions after the presentations. Questions ranged from logistical clarifications to security concerns.
Extended school year/graduation date
Deputy Superintendent Ken Weaver does not anticipate students having to make up any time that has missed. The last day of school and graduation date have not changed. “For the seniors,” Weaver said, “we are going to do everything we can to support them and make sure they are going to be graduating on time.”
There will be extra opportunities for students to take college-entrance exams and more intensive summer school opportunities.
Lemond clarified that although media have been given a designated area on school grounds, they are not allowed inside the buildings (except for public open meetings). “We have allowed media onto our grounds, but in a very safe distance away from the students. They are not to interact with students or staff in any way.”
Several parents spoke strongly in favor of installing metal detectors.
“Clear backpacks are reactive, but do very little to be proactive to prevent weapons from being brought in to OHS,” Sarah, a parent, said. “Handguns can be hidden in coats, jackets, waistbands, ankle holsters etc. If safety is number one, which it must be, then the best, most proactive measure will be to prevent the weapons from entering the school to begin with. I strongly believe metal detectors manned by security officers is the best way to prevent weapons from entering.”
Lemond agreed that the best way to ensure student safety is to stop weapons from entering schools. “The best way to ensure weapons are not in our schools,” she said, “is to make sure students don’t want to bring weapons into our schools, and that’s really why our main focus has been on social-emotional aspects of this. We’ve seen from the research that the social-emotional support really is the best prevention measure.”
The district is reviewing research and studies that have been done throughout the country specifically looking at how effective metal detectors are at stopping weapons from getting into schools. “I will tell you that the research suggests that they are not very helpful.”
Part of the problem is the large number of entrances. There are 54 exterior doors at the high school. The cost of the machines is not a concern, but operating them correctly and consistently is.
Lemond said the conversation will continue and they will have an update in the coming weeks.
In a poll, participants were asked how satisfied they are with the plan to reopen Oxford High School. 53% said “very satisfied,” 38% said “somewhat satisfied,” and 9% said “not satisfied.”
Another question asked, “What is the most important support or safety measure to you as we plan for the safe return to school?”
1% said “clear backpacks,” 19% said “metal detectors,” 30% said “mental health experts on site,” and 49% said “long-term security presence.”