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Samara Rand, an English teacher at Holmes County Central High School, assists a student with a writing assignment. Rand, who has not seen her students since Spring Break, is now adjusting to bringing her classroom online after the district closed its schools last month. Photo: Rory Doyle for The Hechinger Report  Credit: Rory Doyle for The Hechinger Report

Before she learned Mississippi schools would be shut down for the rest of the school year, Samara Rand, a high school teacher in Holmes County, planned to spend April giving feedback on senior capstone projects and helping students send in last-minute college applications.

The seniors in her English class at Holmes County Central High School had previously told her of their dream occupations. Engineering, aviation and nursing were all on the table. One soft-spoken student, who often wore a camouflage jacket and weathered boots to class, said he wanted his own trucking company. Now, with schools closed through the end of the school year, the students are unsure of what their graduation and their future will look like.

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“The juniors, at least they can have another year. I hate it for my senior students,” Rand said.

At first, many hoped the coronavirus pandemic would mean only a temporary disruption. The district extended its Spring Break return date by two weeks, but assured students the high school’s prom would be rescheduled.

But as the news about the virus became increasingly grim, Rand was told to begin preparing for distance learning. She started searching for lessons provided by the online learning program Edgenuity that she could adapt for her high school students.

Related: ‘You can’t help but to wonder’: Crumbling schools, less money, and dismal outcomes in the county that was supposed to change everything for black children in the South

It’s not the first time Rand has faced an upheaval this school year. She started the year teaching second grade at a nearby elementary school. But the high school was short on teachers, so administrators eliminated her position, split her class up between colleagues and moved her to 11th and 12th grade English.

“Even though some students say they don’t like school, some depend on school as a safe haven. Some actually look forward to actually coming to school. Everyone misses it.”

Samara Rand, teacher at Holmes County Central High School

I met Samara Rand in late September, on her first day on her new job at Holmes Central, while reporting on the 50th anniversary of a Supreme Court case that led to school desegregation across the South. Hundreds of black families in Holmes County were foot soldiers in that battle and, with the landmark anniversary of the case approaching, I wanted to explore why the county’s schools looked like the legal victory never happened.

On her first day at the high school, students wondered if Rand was their latest sub. In Holmes County, schools still struggle to provide the basics, including certified teachers, in a community where de facto segregation is still the norm. Nearly every black child in Holmes County enrolls in the county’s public schools; the majority of white children attend a private academy. Black children in Mississippi are almost three times as likely to live in poverty as white children, a ratio that is even higher in Holmes County. The racial disparities compound the challenges of generational poverty in this rural region. During the worst years, graduation rates in the county trailed the state’s average by double-digits.

Related: How Mississippi’s districts are separated into haves and have-nots

For those who do receive a diploma, the community turns out big. Families host cookouts and wear matching T-shirts airbrushed with the graduate’s name and class year. “Senior year is a big milestone. Think of students who don’t have any intention of going to college,” Rand said. “This might be their only time to walk across the stage.”

“A lot of them have been asking me what are they going to do for graduation, I can’t really give them any answers,” Rand said.

Then there are the students she hasn’t heard from at all. The district sprawls over 760 square miles from the central portion of the state to the Delta. More than 40 percent of the district’s families live below the federal poverty line. The district has distributed thousands of meals over the past few weeks, making drop-offs at local apartment complexes and on back-roads bus stops.

Black children in Mississippi are almost three times as likely to live in poverty as white children, a ratio that is even higher in Holmes County.

Despite the pervasive poverty, which means many students may lack computers and internet service, and although many of the state’s districts have launched hybrid programs combining paper packets with online learning, Holmes County Superintendent James Henderson announced on March 19 the district’s intention to go all-in on distance learning. The district has provided half of its students with laptops and another shipment of devices and hotspots is on the way.

“We are committed to ensuring that every student continues to have access to instruction and moves forward with learning so that no one falls behind or misses out being prepared for the global economy,” Henderson said in a statement. “We have the will and means to get this done.”

Related: Planning ahead to catch up students when school reopens after coronavirus

By mid-April, as the district scrambled to bring the program to scale, Rand said most of her 164 students were participating but about 30 had never logged on. Two of them confirmed what she suspected — they lacked the Wi-Fi access needed to complete the work.

Rand plans to spend this week using the school’s communications app, from a company called SchoolStatus, to make calls and send texts to reach these students and their families. She’s thought a lot about the barriers — apart from lacking access to a device or the internet — that can stand in her students’ way. Some of them are likely stepping up to help watch younger siblings while their parents report to work. Others, who needed a nudge to stay on task in class, might be reeling without one-on-one attention as they pace through questions about Beowulf online.

“Even though some students say they don’t like school, some depend on school as a safe haven,” Rand said. “Some actually look forward to actually coming to school. Everyone misses it.”

Amid the uncertainty, Rand has found some clarity. After going back and forth about whether she could survive the transition to teaching at the high school level, she now has no doubt that she wants to return.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about Holmes County Central High School was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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