School starts in Columbus under strict COVID protocols

August 7, 2020 10:28:02 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


The first day of school always means a bit of apprehension. But this year, those fears were of a different nature.


Kaleb and Kendall Henry were concerned about how safety protocols would be implemented and followed at Columbus High School. Tanesha Jennings wondered if she would spend all day sounding like a broken record, reminding students at Stokes-Beard Elementary School to wear their masks.


By the end of Thursday's first day of classes for the Columbus Municipal School District, those fears were largely assuaged.



"I was actually very concerned on the way to school," said Kendall Henry, who along with his twin brother, Kaleb, started his sophomore year at CHS Thursday. "Once I walked in and saw they were checking temperatures and were really big on social distancing, I felt a lot better."


"We had a very good first day,' said Jennings, principal at Stokes-Beard. "I thought I would spend all day saying, 'Put your mask back on,' but it turned out not to be a problem. The kids were very obedient. It was obvious the parents did a great job talking to their children about what they needed to do."


Unlike the other Golden Triangle school districts, which have delayed re-openings as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in the state, CMSD opened as scheduled. Thursday and Friday classes provided regular instruction but also served as something of an orientation for students and staff alike for the district's greatly-altered school year.


As part of the plan, only about a quarter of the district's roughly 3,400 students attended in-person classes Thursday with the rest participating in virtual classes.


About 40 percent of CMSD students chose to take all classes virtually, with the remaining 2,000 students opting for a hybrid schedule -- attending classes two days a week, either Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday -- while learning virtually the other three days a week. No students will be on campuses Wednesdays, which will be used to sanitize school grounds as teachers spend the day on staff development and students work independently on class assignments.


"One of the things this plan allows us to do is to greatly reduce class sizes," CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat said. "At the elementary schools, that will allow us to have no more than 10 students in a classroom and no more than 100 kids on campus on any given day. At the middle school and high school, we'll have no more than 15 kids in class and 300 kids on campus. That allows us to make sure we can follow all the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for social distancing and the other safety measures."


Those small classes made a big impression on the Henrys.


"I was really surprised," Kendall said. "The number was way under 10. It was like seven kids in my classes, including me."


"I had one class where there were just four of us," Kaleb said.


While area school districts are providing a variety of options -- often a mix of traditional in-class classes, virtual classes or a combination of the two -- there are many common measures all of the school districts will employ.


Students will have their breakfasts and lunches in their classroom. Meals for those who do not attend physical classes can use the school's drive-through meals process.


Social distancing and mask wearing are universal requirements at all school districts.


With the exception of the Lowndes County School District, all plans have been finalized.



Lowndes County School District


LCSD postponed its opening until Sept. 1, making it the last of the area schools that will open.


"We are re-thinking everything we have done because of the increase in cases," said Superintendent Sam Allison. "That was the reason we decided to delay opening. We wanted to have a better idea of what we're dealing with."


As originally planned, LCSD will provide both traditional and virtual classes for its 5,346 students. The district is also considering a hybrid plan that would allow students to split their time between traditional and virtual learning.


"We'll sit down next week and develop that plan, maybe have half of the students come into the schools one day and the other half the next," Allison said. "I don't think we'll do hybrid classes the whole year, but we'll see what happens."



Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District


SOCSD will begin classes Aug. 24 and will offer two options for Pre-K through seventh grade and three for grades 8-12, said Assistant Superintendent Anna Guntharp.


In the lower grades, students have the option of either traditional or virtual-only classes. Students in the higher grades will also have a hybrid option, with some students attending in-person classes on Monday and Wednesday and others attending classes on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule.


Guntharp said pushing the start of classes back two weeks has allowed the district to fine-tune its plans.


"We've gotten to a place where there's a lot more consistency in what we're hearing from the state health department," Guntharp said. "Early on, that was a challenge as we put together our plans to make sure our students were safe. Now, we have a much better idea of what we need to be doing."



West Point Consolidated School District


West Point pushed its re-opening to Aug. 31, largely on the advice of medical experts, Superintendent Burnell McDonald said.


"There were two groups we listened to in making the decision," McDonald said. "The first group was the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Mississippi State Medical Association," he said. "Both of those groups said it would be better to wait until there was a downward trajectory in (COVID-19) cases before re-opening. The other group was the county emergency management people. They deal not only with the health of students but adults as well. They also recommended a delay."


McDonald said WPCSD students have the option of traditional or virtual classes.


"When we sent out surveys to parents, it came back about 50/50 on whether they preferred regular classes or distance learning," McDonald said. "We expect to have about 60 percent of our students choose to attend regular classes, which means it will be easier to maintain social distancing. We are also asking parents to bring their children to school if they can so we don't have as many students on our buses. We won't have the usual assemblies and programs that bring a large number of kids together, either. We'll find out ways to do that."



Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science


MSMS, a state-run residential high school for 11th and 12th graders, will begin classes as scheduled on Monday, but have altered the plan. All classes will be held virtually for the first half of the opening nine-week term. Originally, juniors were to attend hybrid classes for the first four-and-a-half weeks before returning to their homes for the second half of the nine-week term. Seniors were to arrive on campus as the juniors left.


Instead, physical classes will begin in October, again with juniors on campus in October, followed by the senior class at the beginning of the second nine-week term. The classes will follow that alternating schedule through the end of the school year.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]