Mississippi schools will reopen in the fall but learning may look very different

State Superintendent of Education talks returning to school in the fall

JACKSON, Miss. (WLOX) - Children will return to school campuses throughout Mississippi this fall but learning may look very different. Many options are still being discussed for what the upcoming fall semester will look like.

State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright spoke with WLOX Thursday morning, saying the Mississippi Department of Education hopes to roll out its 2020-2021 recommendations by next week.

While all schools are currently offering some type of summer learning, the main focus now has turned to reopening in the fall.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a switch that’s flipped and you’re going to see 100% of the children in the building. I really do not,” said Wright. “I think all of the superintendents now are pivoting to the reopening of schools... What will it take to reopen and what will be a safe way to do that?What do schedules need to look like? What does cleanliness need to look like? What do all types of activities need to look like, extracurricular activities?”

Wright continued: “What do schedules need to be thinking about? Do we need to bring some students in the afternoons? Do we need to bring certain grade levels in? One thing it’s shown us is that our little ones, particularly pre-K to (grade) 1, we need to make sure they are having as much facetime with teachers in terms of learning to read. That is one thing I think all of the teachers on my advisory council have said is that, yeah, we need those little ones right in front of us when it comes to teaching them to read.”

A subcommittee formed of superintendents from across the state are currently working to address all of those questions. Leading that subcommittee is Dr. Bonita Coleman from Ocean Springs School District. Those recommendations are expected to be released to superintendents next week.

“Everybody is really looking at this from their own context because it does differ depending on how well prepared you are to provide online," said Wright. "I think you’re going to see a combination, face to face, no doubt. But I also think you’re going to see a combination of online and I think there may be some districts that decide to do full time. It’s a variety but it’s going to be left up to superintendents.”

Another important part of the plan that education leaders are working on is providing technology to every student in Mississippi.

“The plan includes, not only devices for every child, this will basically put a device in every child’s hand. But also, the connectivity to the internet and what that will look like.”

One of the challenges thousands of Mississippians have faced is the not having access to internet, which prevented many students from being able to participate in online learning. That’s also an issue the state legislature is working to address, said Wright.

“We know it’s going to be harder, particularly in the rural areas of the state. So, there’s been some interest in expanding the broadband in those parts of the state. We’re really trying to look at it from every possible way we can look at it. We’re seeing a lot of really good response from our legislature and our leadership. So, we’re hopeful.”

Providing more resources to teachers, parents, and students is a big focus of the discussion, ensuring everyone has more guidance and ease of access to online learning.

“We found in our discussions with teachers and parents that they both wish they had had a little more professional development where online learning is concerned,” said Wright. “It also includes making sure there’s a learning management system, and that’s just a platform that you can load very high-quality curriculum on to so that all children will have to do is load that on to their laptops. It would also save teachers a whole lot of time.”

Providing mental health resources and therapy students is also something Wright said the Department of Education is looking at closely.

“We’re hearing there’s a lot of stress and we’re hearing that from teachers as well as parents and children,” she said. “So, we’re wanting to expand telehealth and teletherapy so children can have resources to the help they need. Even speech therapy could be delivered through teletherapy. We know that students with disabilities have really struggled through this, as well. We’re trying to put it all together to form one good plan for the entire state.”

In the meantime, districts have implemented summer learning programs.

“I think all of our schools are offering some kind of summer learning program, no doubt,” said Wright. “The governor’s executive order requested that and actually required that so I think they’re all trying to figure out how best to implement summer learning.”

Mississippi Department of Education is still trying to discern just how much students were affected by school closures and what those districts need. A comprehensive needs assessment was given to all districts in the state. That assessment is due back June 5, said Wright.

“We need actual numbers. We need to know what each district has, what they do not have, what they need in terms of devices, how old are their devices, do they have a learning management system or not," said Wright. “We tried to do a survey with parents but the response rate was just not as good as we had hoped so we didn’t really feel that was very reliable way to go about it. So, we’re trying now a different way to figure out from the district side what we can supply the district.”

The CDC has released some guidance for schools across the country, ranging from low-risk to high-risk areas. To read those guiding principles, visit the CDC’s website.

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