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In this file photo, a student at Quitman County Elementary works on an assignment. Education leaders here say children in the Quitman County School District could spend part of the fall receiving remote instruction if community outbreaks aren’t brought under control. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner/The Hechinger Report

On a Thursday evening in mid-July, Superintendent Miskia Davis stuck to a careful script as she presented the Sunflower County Consolidated School District’s reopening plan to an audience of hundreds of parents on Facebook. The district’s school board had approved a hybrid model in which some students will spend the day learning on campus while their peers learn remotely at home, before the groups rotate later in the week.

Davis was in a difficult position. Just next door, the Leland School District was leaning toward keeping schooling fully remote until at least October. Thirty-minutes down the road, the Cleveland School District was planning to bring kids back to school buildings full time. In a stream of comments, parents grilled Davis about how in the world schools could require young children to wear masks with no exceptions. Others worried whether learning in person was safe at all.

“This isn’t going to work! My baby has a weak immune system and I know he’s not going to keep on a mask,” wrote one commenter.

30 (or more) — Number of cases of the coronavirus per 100,000 residents in several Mississippi districts that are planning to reopen for in-person teaching next month

Davis tried to offer reassurance through an extended nautical metaphor. She displayed a picture of boats being tossed at sea and asked families to notice the boats’ different sizes and colors, and the different direction each vessel was headed. The boats represented school districts, she said. The storm was the pandemic.

“We can’t focus on what the other boat looks like, what the other district is doing, what they’re doing in Hollandale and Leland,” she said. “We can’t focus on that because our situation is different. We have to do what’s best for our children in Sunflower County. We can’t compare our boat to anyone else’s.”

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But parents and educators across the state are comparing. The decision to leave reopening plans for schools at the local level has resulted in a patchwork of approaches fracturing the way students will learn this fall, even between neighboring school districts.

Related: A new playbook for summer school

Mississippi’s commitment to “home rule” has left districts mostly on their own to attempt an almost impossible balancing act: trying to protect the health of kids and school staff while also trying to mitigate the devastating learning losses and inequities exacerbated by remote learning. And since it’s Mississippi, where school resources are already scarce, many districts are doing so with tough logistics to consider, like how to stretch federal funding for protective equipment and how to protect and retain educators who, due to chronic teacher shortages, are already hard to come by.

Many teachers and kids will be returning to classrooms in counties that have been designated as Covid-19 red zones, according to the risk-level map developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute and other partners. Only 11 of Mississippi’s 82 counties meet the threshold for being rated “orange zones,” with no more than 24 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 people. The institute recommends orange-zone districts consider bringing younger students and children receiving special education services back to school for in-person instruction (provided they can meet certain mitigation measures), while requiring high schoolers to complete studies online. In red zones, the institute advises all learning should be remote.

Although state health officials in Mississippi have expressed concern about rising infection rates, Gov. Tate Reeves has so far resisted issuing directives about how superintendents should reopen schools this fall — although he has repeatedly stated all schools should open if possible. The governor said he fears that extended virtual instruction could endanger the state’s recent academic progress; he has left open the possibility that he might step in if he has concerns about districts’ plans.

In this file photo, students at a middle school in Mississippi listen to a lecture. Superintendents are weighing whether to bring students back for in-person instruction. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

We want to give much deference to our local school boards,” he said. “That’s the way we run education in Mississippi. But much like I did in March, if it becomes necessary that we step in and issue an executive order which binds all schools to a certain approach we will not be hesitant to do so.”

As of July, three out of four districts in the state were planning some version of a hybrid model or a full reopening this fall.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the School Superintendents Association, said the majority of states have punted reopening decisions to the local school district level. “One school district is doing remote, the district next door is bringing all the kids back as if nothing is happening,” he said. “It’s not like other countries where it’s a national system and they call the shots.”

The wide autonomy given to local school districts is essentially forcing some education chiefs and school boards to become epidemiologists on the fly as they try to figure out if it’s safe to reopen. Superintendents are having to weigh conflicting messages from elected leaders, public health officials and groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics about what they should do.

Related: ‘You’re stuck’: America wants to reopen its economy. It won’t happen without schools or child care

The White House initially issued guidance that districts should resume in-person learning only after confirmed cases had trended downward for two weeks, as a part of Phase 2 reopening. Then, President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Betsy DeVos have aggressively pushed the nation’s schools to reopen amid rising coronavirus cases in more than 30 states. They cited recent guidance by the American Academy of Pediatrics calling districts to return to on-campus instruction this fall as much as possible, although the group later cautioned that, when reopening, districts should take into account “the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible.”

On Thursday, Trump said schools in coronavirus hotspots “may need to delay reopening for a few weeks.”*

5 — Number of cases of the coronavirus per 100,000 residents when students were allowed students to return to campus in Denmark, Germany and Norway

Some states have been prescriptive. In New York, schools in regions with a daily infection rate below 5 percent can open; if rates reach above 9 percent campuses would be required to shut down. Countries that have had success with reopening schools also took a cautious approach. These nations started from a foundation of driving down infections rate first, according to Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean for Public Health Practice at Johns Hopkins University.

“Lower the transmission and take precautions, that’s been the recipe,” he said during a recent press call with reporters.

Denmark, Germany and Norway had fewer than five positive cases per 100,000 residents before students were allowed to return to campus, according to analysis from the Center for American Progress. In contrast, several Mississippi districts allowing students to return next month have more than 30 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

Even if infection rates decline, without proper funds to prevent another surge, including contact tracing, personal protective equipment and proper ventilation in aging school buildings, students and staff could remain at risk. But in Mississippi, infection rates are only getting worse.

Gov. Reeves recently added Sunflower County to a list of counties with stricter limits on gatherings due to rising levels of the virus in the community. Local physicians said they were already overwhelmed. Davis hopes to make reopening work by having school nurses stay in close contact with community health providers. She cited research about students faring better academically when they’re in the classroom, but still feels torn.

“You’re right in the middle,” she said. “If you bring students back there is a risk, if you leave students at home something is at risk.”

Related: Coronavirus is making it easier to become a teacher in a state with severe shortage of educators

It could be September before children in Quitman County schools attend school in person. The Mississippi Delta School District said that students won’t return before Labor Day due to rising infection rates in the community. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

In nearby Quitman County, the only hospital closed in 2016. Superintendent Evelyn Jossell said she hopes to use a hybrid schedule in which students rotate their attendance. One group of children would attend in-person while their peers attend remotely each day. The switch-off will allow her to lower class sizes and accomplish social distancing to keep kids and teachers safe. Families can also opt-in to receive remote instruction only. Jossell added she won’t hesitate to close schools entirely if case rates continue to surge. The district has already decided to participate in virtual learning until Labor Day.

In Clarksdale, Superintendent Joe Nelson is assessing data for Coahoma County, where the district is located, and waiting until the district can purchase disinfecting equipment — including “foggers” that can cost more than $3,000 each and that can douse down the surfaces of school buses and classrooms from top to bottom within a matter of minutes — before allowing students to return.

The district is in line for federal funds provided through the Congressional CARES relief package that can support the purchase. It could be a lifeline. Nelson said the district currently lacks “in-house” funds to buy the cleaning devices.

“You’re right in the middle. If you bring students back there is a risk, if you leave students at home something is at risk.”

Superintendent Miskia Davis of the Sunflower County Consolidated School District

West Tallahatchie is one of a handful of districts in the Delta that plans to remain online for at least the first quarter of the fall. A tornado in January forced the decision. The district’s elementary school was severely damaged, and cramming additional students into the district’s remaining two campuses wouldn’t provide enough room to space students apart.

Superintendent Sherry Ellington said the district’s short-term plan to use portable classrooms could allow students to come back eventually, but only if the trend in infections reverses.

In the meantime, parents are struggling to make sense of how districts’ approaches could vary so greatly. On the Gulf Coast, for example, the four districts located in Jackson County differ widely on whether they will simply encourage the use of face masks by educators and kids or mandate the coverings inside school buildings.

Paula King, a parent with a middle school student in the Cleveland School District in Bolivar County, questioned why the district’s plan for the fall would have students returning for five days a week, even as levels of the virus continued to rage in the community. (The district did not respond to questions about the plan.)

“We have been in isolation since March,” King said. “We’re really serious about minimizing exposure. It’s a scary proposition to me.”

She said districts leaders haven’t explained how they plan to accomplish mitigation measures like social distancing, although the district announced on July 21 that face coverings will be required. The announcement that bus routes would run as normal also raised red flags. King is leaning toward keeping her son at home, at least for the start of the school year.

“We are not complainers. If you’ve got to wear the uniform, you wear the uniform,” said King. “This really does come down to health and safety.”

King’s friend Deidra Byas also feels uneasy about the district’s plan, but she believes it’s best to send her daughter back.

Her daughter, who is going into the third grade, has dyslexia and also receives speech therapy. The setup this past spring meant her daughter scarcely had access to her speech therapist and other support staff. Instead of individual sessions, she received packets of worksheets to practice her speech exercises.

The 8-year-old started thriving when her dyslexia therapist reached out and offered to work one-on-one with her through Facetime this summer.

Byas said her anxiety spiked when the district initially resisted providing parents with the option of remote learning. She worried that parents who felt unprepared to attempt homeschooling without the district’s support might feel forced to send their children back in-person, potentially increasing class sizes and making social distancing more difficult.

She still has questions. She’s even considered moving, if the district’s safety protocols when schools reopen seem too lax to assure her daughter is safe. For now, “her returning back to school is the only option we have,” Byas said.

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 reopening plans for 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.

*Update: This story has been updated to include new statements by President Trump on reopening plans for schools.

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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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