Local school boards -- not MDE -- will approve, oversee pandemic reopening plans

Instead, the state's education and health departments will provide guidelines and assistance
Updated: Jul. 13, 2020 at 7:49 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - While school districts across Mississippi have mere weeks to get their plans for reopening approved, those plans are not scrutinized by state education employees nor health experts beforehand.

From approval to oversight, that power instead rests with the school board of each district, according to a spokesperson with the Mississippi Dept. of Education.

“MDE issued guidance to districts about the policies and options for school opening plans,” spokesperson Jean Cook said in a statement Monday. “Local school boards are responsible for district oversight.”

That includes meeting state and local policies, Cook explained.

Those policies also include guidelines drafted by the Mississippi State Dept. of Health, which State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs helped put together.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said his agency has worked closely with MDE, providing recommendations and guidance for opening this fall in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

They also have resources available for those districts, Byers said, but any reopening plans by the district do not require MSDH review or approval.

Essentially, this means that school districts operate on an honor system of sorts, relying on school boards -- not MDE -- to hold their districts accountable for not following state law or health department guidelines.

“MDE expects school districts to adhere to MSDH guidance when making plans for operating schools in the 2020-21 school year,” Cook said.

MDE verifies compliance through investigative evaluations triggered through complaints against school districts, Cook adds, as well as annual personnel reports and compilations for state and federal programs.

While some districts have not yet released their reopening plans, the Madison County School District was one of the first in central Mississippi to do so.

At this point, they’re planning for a physical return to classrooms on August 17.

Superintendent Charlotte Seals said they’ve been working extensively to meet these state requirements and have also included input from students, parents and staff through surveys conducted over the summer break.

“What we think we can do today may be totally different in a week or two weeks, or closer to the start of school. And I think we have to realize that, that this is a very fluid situation,” Seals said.

When asked whether she thinks MDE should be auditing and approving these plans instead of school boards, Seals said she thinks this is a way for schools to get a plan in place more quickly, given the short window of time they have available.

“I think MDE and the state department of health realize that, and I think they really want to work with us and provide overall guidance, while letting each district make the decisions in terms of specifics based on the needs of the district and the community in which parents, students and staff live,” Seals said.

Seals said the vast majority of students in the Madison County School District would be able to fully participate in distance learning classes if the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, and they would work with those who don’t have access -- around 3 to 4 percent -- to make sure they’re on pace with their classmates.

The superintendent also said students in grades 3 through 12 already have tablets to help them with their distance learning and classroom activities.

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