Principal Julie Fancher measures six feet between two decals to remind people about social distancing on Friday at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School in Starkville. Eight decals will be spread out in Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary's main office area to remind visitors to stay apart. Photo by: Claire Hassler/Dispatch Staff
Principal Julie Fancher presses a decal to remind people about social distancing on the floor in the office on Friday at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School in Starkville. These decals are for congested office areas where parents will be. Plain yellow stickers will be placed throughout the rest of the school to keep students socially distanced.
Photo by: Claire Hassler/Dispatch Staff
June 27, 2020 9:00:41 PM
Keeping track of the ever-changing impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is a lot of work, said Cherie Labat, the superintendent of Columbus Municipal School District.
Public health data is just one factor for school administrators to consider in their decisions about whether to reopen schools, or to what extent reopening is safe, when the academic year begins in early August. Transportation, safety protocols and effective curriculum delivery in a learning environment subject to quick changes are all important, Labat said.
"Another superintendent told me even when you think you've thought of everything, something else comes up, because there's not a playbook for this," she said.
Mississippi Department of Education released a set of guidelines on June 8 for districts to consider for their reopening plans. MDE presented three options: a traditional school schedule, in which students are physically present at school but follow a strict set of health and safety rules; a virtual schedule, in which teachers will present their entire curriculum online for students to learn at home as they did from March to May; and a hybrid schedule, which combines online and in-person instruction.
CMSD administrators decided Thursday that schools will open on hybrid schedules, Labat said. They are still figuring out the details, but students will most likely attend school and learn from home on alternating days.
Labat said administrators made the decision after surveying parents to gauge their comfort level with sending their children back to school and used that data to form contingency plans for reopening the district.
A traditional schedule is the goal but not the "final decision" for Lowndes County School District, according to a Thursday Facebook post. Administrators started meeting with principals the week of June 15 so plans can be "as uniform as possible" districtwide, Superintendent Sam Allison said.
LCSD has received some input from parents but has not conducted an official survey of their thoughts on reopening, Allison said.
Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District will issue its own survey to parents in July. Administrators want to make the final decision about reopening schools "as close to August as possible," Superintendent Eddie Peasant said, because parents' willingness to send their children to school can change as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases changes daily.
Classes will start Aug. 6 for SOCSD and CMSD. Allison said LCSD will "start around the same time" but has not set an exact date yet.
Each district is preparing to implement safety measures such as temperature screenings for everyone who enters the buildings and routine disinfecting of all surfaces.
LCSD's Facebook post includes a list of protocols, including requiring all students to wear protective face masks, limiting visitors' access to school buildings and encouraging parents to drive their children to school in order to minimize the numbers of students on buses.
SOCSD is considering a collaboration with Mississippi State University's Starkville-MSU Area Rapid Transit system to take some students to school in the fall, Peasant said at the June 9 board of trustees meeting.
West Point Consolidated School District Superintendent Burnell McDonald declined to comment on any potential reopening plans until after the district board of trustees holds its next meeting on July 13.
Addressing learning gaps
Labat said CMSD's three foremost priorities are students' safety, their social-emotional needs and addressing gaps in their education that two months of distance learning might have created.
CMSD holds diagnostic testing for its students at the beginning of every year, but this year's tests are more important than ever, Labat said, not only because of the increased chances of learning gaps but because of the risk of COVID-19 exposure, since testing will be done in-person.
"We will start with rigorous grade level standards-based instruction and will use the diagnostic test in the first three weeks of school to work through the learning gaps for every student," Labat said.
Three weeks will hopefully be enough time to test every student in a sanitized, socially distant environment, Labat said. The district hopes to have all the data it needs for sufficient instruction in case a COVID-19 outbreak causes schools to switch back to a fully virtual learning environment.
LCSD is also mindful of potential learning gaps, Allison said.
"Students respond differently to online instruction -- some probably worked a couple hours a day, and some probably didn't do a whole lot," he said. "There was no way to set an expectation as far as what we expected students to do. We could communicate that, but it was still difficult."
SOCSD has already identified students who have fallen behind academically based on incomplete work from the end of last school year, Peasant said.
"We'll continue to work with those students and have teachers that specifically hone in on them and their learning gaps," he said.
Labat said parental participation in bringing their children to the testing sites will be vital in collecting data.
"The trauma of the pandemic and the social unrest (are) going to have an impact on learning gaps, so making students and parents comfortable during the first three weeks is going to be very important," she said.
Access to devices and broadband
The Mississippi Senate introduced a bill on June 17 that would provide $150 million in federal stimulus funds for public schools statewide to invest in virtual learning, including the purchase of electronic devices for students to take home with them.
The bill passed the Senate on June 18 and was referred to the House Rules Committee on Tuesday. State Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D-West Point), one of the authors of the bill, said she is confident it will pass the Legislature and go to Gov. Tate Reeves' desk.
Sixth through 12th graders in LCSD already have MacBooks they can bring home with them, as do Columbus High School students. SOCSD provided some devices to SHS students who were enrolled in Advanced Placement and dual-credit classes after schools closed in March, and the district plans to buy more devices for the 2020-21 school year, district spokeswoman Nicole Thomas said.
Allison said LCSD will be ready to provide devices for kindergarten through fifth grade students who previously have not been allowed to take their devices home from school.
"Because we were all under a stay-at-home order (in April), there was really no safe way to get those devices out," Allison said.
No matter how many students have devices, they need broadband internet in order to use them, and broadband is limited or inaccessible in some parts of Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties.
CMSD and SOCSD tried to alleviate this issue by setting up several Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Columbus and Starkville. LCSD has not done the same, but Allison said the district is open to whatever it needs to do to make virtual learning more accessible.
"The thing is, in schools, you need interaction between teachers and students just for effective teaching and learning," he said. "That's our goal, but if we are in a place where we have to go online, we will have a better plan."
Labat said implementing the hotspots took a lot of time and resources, including insurance costs, but it was the best CMSD could do with its existing internet infrastructure.
"Building on what we already have is the best accessibility that we can provide in the next year," she said. "Sometimes you like to think two to three years out, but right now you have to think about the next two months, three months or nine weeks. We don't necessarily like living in contingency rotation, but it's our life right now."
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