/An issue of life or death’ Reeves weighs statewide mandate on school reopening

An issue of life or death’ Reeves weighs statewide mandate on school reopening

Mississippi News Gov. Nonprofit Tate Reeves is the only official in the state who can issue a mandate to postpone school or force virtual learning. He finds himself in a difficult political situation as schools in the state are about to resume in-person instruction. Many parents and teachers across Mississippi are urging Reeves not to delay school because of the rising number of coronavirus cases. They claim already cash-strapped schools can’t cope with the virus preparation demands and warn that students and teachers will be affected. Many parents worry about their children’s education and how they will manage childcare. Teachers and parents alike are concerned about the wellbeing of students if they miss school or in-person interaction in rural states that lack adequate distance learning. Each of the state’s 138 district have been given the opportunity to determine when and how they will reopen. They are due to submit their plans by Friday. Reeves will not issue any state-wide directives regarding public school operations, as most schools will return to the classrooms in the first week of August. Reeves stated this week that Mississippians have long believed they want local control over education. Reeves has stated that he expects schools will reopen soon to offer in-person classes. However, he said he will carefully review each district’s plans and determine if any statewide mandates are necessary. Reeves stated that it is not something he wants to do and that he cannot tell you with absolute certainty that he will have to do. “… “Those who have been around me for 16 or 17 years know that I’m not afraid to make a choice.” Reeves is sure to be criticized regardless of his decision. Advocates and educators call on Reeves and the Mississippi Department of Education for more leadership in this area. MDE claims that neither the State Board of Education nor the Department of Education have the power to prevent school reopenings or force closures. Reeves, who is granted broad emergency authority, stated that he would prefer to leave the decision to local school districts. Erica Jones, president of Mississippi Association of Educators said that schools are facing a unique challenge but “our state’s leaders cannot be found.” Jones stated that there is no standardized guidance. Schools do not have a mandate to use masks. Districts without the necessary resources for distance learning are not supported. There is no plan. Teachers are asked to clean their classrooms. Teachers across the state are afraid to return to schools because of their own health and that of their families. The Mississippi State Medical Association, and the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians are asking for the state not to reopen classrooms until pandemic cases have a “downward trajectory,” which is not likely to happen anytime soon. They called for a delay to Sept. 1 and a mandate that all school staff wear masks. Reeves said that the state would not waive the “180 day rule,” which is a state law that mandates schools to provide 180 days of instruction per year by June 30, and will continue to do so. Reeves stated that schools that are considering virtual classes at 100 percent are “ignorant the fact that we will have testing that takes place in the 2020-2021 school years.” States are currently facing similar questions and deliberations about school restart. There are many state plans, some with strict statewide mandates while others allow local decisions like Reeves would prefer. Alabama’s superintendent has asked all schools to reopen according to their regular schedule. However, individual districts will decide. Arkansas Governor has asked for in-person classes in the fall. However, he also urged schools to be prepared with virtual classes. The top Florida education official has issued an order for schools to reopen and continue providing normal services. It is still a mystery to many states. This week, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s State Health Officer was asked if the Mississippi Health Department could provide COVID-19 case metrics to schools on when schools can reopen, close buildings, and how to teach remotely. Dobbs said, “There’s no easy answer,” and “not a precise number.” Dobbs also noted that school reopenings could be limited due to the current trajectory of the Mississippi virus. Dobbs stated that there may be schools that need to close very quickly after opening. It all depends on whether there are outbreaks.” Dobbs said that younger children seem to have less risk of getting sick and that the experience gained from daycares suggests some promise for students in lower grades. Dobbs stated that the day cares were not closed. Dobbs stated that although we didn’t see any cases in daycares, there weren’t major outbreaks. Despite the rhetoric, many educators in the state remain concerned. Jones stated, “Make no mistake: Schools are going to close eventually.” It can be done safely, with a plan in place. Or it can happen when an outbreak occurs or when something unthinkable happens. This is a matter of life and death. The ripple effects of an absence of leadership will have repercussions far beyond the walls of a school.

Is this a model for reopening schools? Corinth School District is known for its innovation and “year-round” school schedule. It has reopened as usual on July 27. Reeves stated that he will closely monitor Corinth schools over the next few week to determine if there are lessons that could be applied across the state. Corinth offers an in-person school and optional virtual classes. Superintendent Lee Childress stated that he anticipates 13% to 18% parents will choose virtual teaching for their children this fall. Each morning, Corinth’s school staff and children walk through thermal temperature scanners that are set up in strategic locations to ensure everyone is checked. Many of them are checked again during school hours. Childress stated that no one has experienced any symptoms or an increase in temperature since the beginning of school. Corinth schools require face masks and provide them to staff and students. They must be worn by all students when they travel to school or move within buildings. Masks are not required for instruction in pre-K to third grade. However, many students are still wearing them. Teachers are trying to keep social distancing. Students in grades 4-12 must wear masks throughout the day, unless they have a place that allows them to social distancing. Childress stated that hand sanitizer is readily available in the schools. Classrooms and other areas are being reconfigured to distain students. Teachers are also disinfecting classrooms at night, as well as other safety protocols. Children are eating in classrooms, instead of cafeterias. Childress stated that if a teacher or student is diagnosed with COVID-19, the district has plans. These include contact tracing and notification for anyone who might be exposed. Childress stated that a positive case does not automatically mean that all classes or grades are dismissed or quarantined. Childress said, “It will depend upon the circumstances.” He also stated that the Health Department had provided guidance to schools, published guidelines, webinars, and video conference for school leaders. Childress stated that he, his school board, and staff worked hard to reopen safety protocols and plans since March’s pandemic in Mississippi. Childress said that his district had involved the community in making the decisions, and he kept them updated via regular Facebook live chats. He stated that MDE and Health Department provided guidance and assistance and he was not critical of the lack of leadership or mandates from the state. Childress stated that when it comes to making decisions about when to reopen and what strategy to use, that should be up to the local school board. “… Schools are a reflection on their community. Every community faces a different situation, and different transmission rates… These different factors should allow you the flexibility to make the best decisions for your districts.” The virtual approach Jackson Public Schools announced last week that it will offer completely virtual learning starting in the fall. Reeves was asked about Jackson Public Schools’ plan to reopen using online-only teaching. He said that he wasn’t willing to talk about specific districts’ plans, but he doubts that some schools can provide a quality education via distance learning. Most school districts that have released their reopening plans are opting for in person schooling. Reeves stated that he reviewed several districts’ plans and found “some of them look very well, while others don’t.” He indicated that he expected to make a decision on state mandates or intervention late this week or early next week. Reeves urged school leaders “think outside of the box” and to be creative with reopening plans. Superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated Schools District Maurice Smith stated that his district is “going completely virtual.” Smith added that the opening date is August 20, but it is possible to alter this. He also said that he will reevaluate how he is doing depending on how many cases are coming from Bolivar County. We chose to go virtual because we were concerned about our staff and students. Bolivar county was recently added to a list that has a high coronavirus positivity rate. “So for those reasons, it was the prudent decision.” Smith stated that he is glad that his school board has the autonomy to determine what’s best for Bolivar. Smith stated that he would prefer for the state to be more helpful in guiding schools on how to receive funding and order electronic devices. Reeves stated that Mississippi schools have received a total amount of “half a million dollars” in federal funding through the CARES Act, and other measures to help with pandemic costs. After speaking with the vice president in Washington and other Washingtonians this week, he believes that a fourth round federal funding will include a substantial portion for school restart expenses. Childress stated that his district has not been in financial hardship by purchasing personal protection equipment or making changes. Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding has also helped to cover the expenses. Some are worried that districts with lower incomes, who are already in financial difficulties, may have a harder time opening again. Reeves stated that he didn’t expect a problem. “Will there ever be problems?” Yes. Yes.