While in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with a return to class for Mississippi public schools, administrators are addressing student health and safety in different ways.
Many districts in the state had to delay the start of classes after executive orders by Gov. Tate Reeves required their schools to start on or after Monday, Aug. 17 after spikes in coronavirus cases from certain counties were recorded.
School districts have been given the option of teaching virtually online, in the classroom, or a combination of both.
In the Jackson Public School District (JPS), for instance, classes began completely virtual on Monday, Aug. 17. The revised Jackson school calendar will now consist of 177 days of instruction. The state Department of Education, on Thursday, Aug. 6, voted to allow an optional waiver that would reduce the school year by up to 10 teaching days for districts that had to push back their start date due to executive orders from the governor.
Typically, Mississippi public schools are required to be in session for 180 teaching days to make up a complete calendar school year.
Jackson school officials also voted to suspend fall extracurricular activities, including sports, for the fall semester due to the increases in positive coronavirus cases.
“I know how disappointing the cancellation of sports and extra-curricular activities may be for students, coaches and parents, but the school district must make decisions that make safety our top priority,” JPS Athletic Director Daryl Jones was quoted on the district website announcing the decision. “As we will not be able to host competitions with teams in a way that we can comply with the guidance from all levels of government and health officials, we must put safety first.”
JPS officials were planning small group workout sessions for athletes, a winter football combine event to showcase senior athletes, and other activities to support athletes, cheerleaders, and band members.
Parents, coaches, and officials were being invited to a special Zoom conference call on Thursday, Aug. 20 for the administration to discuss what was being done to support students in JPS co-curricular activities.
Mississippi’s largest school district, DeSoto County Schools in North Mississippi, provided parents and students the option to start the year by attending classes in their schools or being taught online at home.
Earlier in the summer, a survey was done to determine if parents wanted to have their children in class or at home, instead. The survey was done to decide whether the district of about 35,000 students in 42 instruction centers would start the year in the classroom or online.
The survey showed that the majority of parents wanted their children taught in class. However, the initial start date of Aug. 6 was pushed back to Monday, Aug. 10, and then delayed another week to Aug. 17 on the order of Gov. Reeves.
Parents informed the district how they wanted their youngsters taught and DCS Supt. Cory Uselton said there was a segment that opted to go the first nine weeks with their students at home.
“We have estimated our virtual learning enrollment to be approximately 35 percent of the student population,” Uselton said. “We will have definite numbers after the first week of school.”
Parents of virtual learners can opt to return their children into the classroom after the end of the first nine weeks.
In Clinton, hybrid learning began on Aug. 13 for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and there was a virtual start for grades 7-12 on Monday, Aug. 17. Virtual learning would continue at least until the Labor Day break, and district officials were scheduled to meet on Monday, Aug. 24 to reassess the situation going past Labor Day.
Other schools are addressing the start of school in similar ways. Jackson Academy is using in-person learning as its primary means of teaching and welcomed youngsters back to class on Aug. 13 after a half-day schedule for Upper School students on Aug. 12. A distance learning option was to be offered for Middle and Upper School students.
Virtual learning would be handled on a case-by-case basis for Lower School students, may not be available for all grades 1-4, and may have to be supplemented with online programs and parental resources for at-home learning.
In every case, Mississippi school officials have spent a considerable amount of time over the summer responding to the changes in requirements from the state while ensuring their students are offered quality education, as they start classes in the middle of a pandemic.