JACKSON — Mississippi school districts have just days to submit plans for this academic year to the state, but as the deadline nears and new cases of the coronavirus continue to rise, those plans keep changing.
Jackson Public Schools came out with a detailed plan in mid-July for how it was going to return students to in-person classroom instruction at the start of the school year.
Kids were to undergo temperature checks before getting on the bus or entering school buildings in the morning. Hand-washing and sanitization breaks were built into the school day. All students would wear masks on campus.
Families had the option of keeping kids at home and doing online learning with district-issued laptops, something educators said would allow for more social distancing in the classroom. The program was created after dozens of surveys, constituent feedback and hours of strategic planning among staff.
But last Friday, just over a week after releasing its plan, Superintendent Errick L. Greene announced Jackson schools officials made the difficult decision to change course and educate students entirely online, at least for the fall. He said he was proud of the work that went into creating a plan to enable kids to return to the classroom but rising cases of coronavirus in the state were an undeniable concern.
“What we’ve seen over the last week or so is somewhere on the border or right at or just over 1,000 new cases each day. … It’s become increasingly necessary over a short period of time to seriously revisit our plan,” Greene said during a special Jackson Public Schools Board of Trustees meeting on July 24.
School districts are due to submit their plans to the Mississippi Department of Education by Friday, but there’s still uncertainty about what schooling during the pandemic will look like, just weeks from the start of the academic year. Districts have been reframing plans almost weekly as they receive updates from the state Department of Health.
“It would be a lot easier if we had less coronavirus in the community,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s health officer, said during a Tuesday media briefing.
The Health Department said Wednesday that the state, which has a population of about 3 million, has had at least 55,804 confirmed cases and at least 1,563 deaths from COVID-19 as of Tuesday evening. That’s an increase of 1,505 confirmed cases and 20 deaths from numbers reported the day before; the figures included four deaths that occurred between May 10 and July 12, with information from death certificates arriving later.
Gov. Tate Reeves has resisted implementing any new executive orders about how schools should be run in the state, saying he would prefer to give Mississippi’s almost 140 school boards local control. If it can be done safely, he said, he would like students to return to the classroom in some form, especially for younger children who require more hands-on learning.
“Think about it. For some of our kids across Mississippi, they have now gone five months without any significant learning opportunities,” he said. “We cannot allow those kids to fall further behind.”
Still, Reeves said some remote work will likely be necessary. He announced Tuesday that work would begin on increasing access to reliable internet throughout the state to bolster remote learning. The legislature approved a $75 million competitive grant program from federal coronavirus relief money for the project. A 2017 report by the Census Bureau showed that only 61% of Mississippians had access to broadband in 2015.
School districts have publicly released their plans online ahead of state review.
In Corinth, students returned to school Monday for in-person instruction. Television footage showed excited seniors wearing masks riding in on the back of pick-up trucks holding balloons and signs. Corinth students are required to wear masks and undergo temperature checks.
Dobbs said all schools should require masks but noted that returning to any form of in-person instruction and activity comes with risk.
The health officer said students and teachers in each age group will face different challenges. Younger kids may be less contagious, for example, but harder to social distance.
Sports are another issue. Dobbs said participating in sports is probably not a good idea right now.
“It may well be that some schools are going to close pretty quickly, whenever they do open, depending on whether there are outbreaks or not,” he said.