During a Senate hearing this week lawmakers asked tough questions about how to safely reopen the country’s schools this fall. State superintendents said resources are dwindling, just when more funds are needed to make preparations for students and educators to return. But a handful of school districts in Mississippi are attempting to make up for the disrupted school year by holding in-person summer school, starting as soon as this week.
Gov. Tate Reeves has allowed school districts to reopen for summer learning programs, even as the state’s rate of new coronavirus infections has shown few signs of receding. Mississippi experienced a single-day record Monday with nearly 500 new coronavirus cases reported. But while several districts are sticking to distance learning only, a few will offer in-person sessions for students who need extra support to be ready for the fall.
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Students and teachers in these districts — which include schools in the suburbs of Jackson and some rural systems — are getting a preview of what the new school year could look like. Already in the Greenville Public School District in the Delta, bus monitors take the temperature of students enrolled in the district’s three-days-a-week summer program before letting them board the bus, according to the district’s superintendent, Debra Dace.
School leaders in Okolona, a district with just under 600 students, are working to have their summer program up and running by July. About 60 students from grades K-5 are eligible to participate in the program, which students can choose to attend in person, or take online.
Superintendent Chad Spence said the district will upload recorded lessons to accommodate families who aren’t comfortable with classes on campus. Chromebooks will also be distributed to children who need them. Spence argues offering real-time instruction is crucial to help young learners make up for missed time, especially those who were already struggling before the school year was disrupted and who are at an increased risk of falling even further behind during school closures.
“It’s very important that we try to fill in those gaps,” he said.
A new analysis released from the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows just how much ground there might be to cover. During the closures this spring, fewer than a third of rural school districts required remote instruction — meaning teachers recorded lessons, engaged with students through videoconferencing platforms or gave feedback by phone or online, as opposed to providing self-paced activities via worksheets and software programs. More than half of urban districts expected teachers to provide remote instruction.
It’s fair to blame part of that divide on connectivity challenges. Residents of rural areas are less likely to have access to broadband at home than those living in larger cities. Children whose parents are unable or unavailable to work with them are also disadvantaged. Sean Gill, a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said younger children often need an adult beside them to help them log into their school’s software and read out instructions.
That’s the reason some districts have made the difficult decision of bringing students back, in person, for extra academic support over the summer, even where access to devices is not an issue.
Clinton Public Schools, a district with a one-to-one device program, didn’t have to ration computers for students. But administrators still found that online learning wasn’t enough to help all students master grade level content.
Assistant Superintendent Anthony Goins said the district is also offering in-person therapy for some students who receive special education services. Although support has been offered virtually, Goins said some families are eager for face-to-face intervention.
Districtwide, roughly 100 students in grades K-5 – about 20 from each grade level – are participating in the limited summer school. The district is using space on five of its campuses so that each classroom hosts fewer than 10 children. Masks are required at all times and typical classroom routines, such as learning stations, where children might work in groups are out.
Some districts in the state’s coronavirus hot spots will hold virtual summer schools only. Nearly 200 elementary students in the Lauderdale County School District, for example, are participating in a program aimed at strengthening early literacy skills. A spokesperson for the district said 17 teachers, each assigned 10 children, will hold small group sessions online. The district has assembled learning packets, which can be picked up by parents, for older students.
On Thursday, Nathan Oakley, chief academic officer for the Mississippi Department of Education, said 123 of the state’s districts were using a blended approach of instructional packets and virtual learning for summer learning. Nineteen districts reported they were using other approaches such as on-site small groups.
Some districts revised their arrangements as the number of new cases in the state climbed. School leaders in Yalobusha County called off preliminary plans for face-to-face instruction, for example, after the county experienced a surge in coronavirus cases.
“Initially, our plan was to hold on-campus summer and enrichment programs,” said Coffeeville Superintendent Vivian McLean-Robinson. “However, the number of cases in Yalobusha County at the end of May had just about tripled. We had to consider that.”
This story about Mississippi schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.