WINONA – Education may look a lot different in the state of Mississippi this upcoming school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Mississippi Department of Education issued three recommendations for opening school this coming school year, however, it is giving local districts the final say of how they plan to hold classes.
The first option is having a traditional schedule with students being required to physically report to school with modifications based on Center for Disease Control guidelines. These guidelines would include daily screening protocols, adjustments to student transportation, routine cleanings, limitations of student movement around school buildings, and the restriction of large student gatherings.
The second option is to have half the students coming to school Monday and Wednesday, and the other half coming Tuesday and Thursday. Friday can be used for tutoring or staff development.
The third option is to have elementary students come to school for face-to-face instruction and secondary students having at-home instruction or rotating days for secondary students like the second option.
“The state department is not going to tell us what to do,” Dr. Teresa Jackson, superintendent of Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District, told her board Tuesday night. “It will be a local decision.”
Jackson said she put out a lengthy survey to parents to get a better idea of what parents are comfortable with in students returning to school. The survey also will help school administration determine student and community needs as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the country.
Jackson said State Superintendent Carey Wright is currently lobbying the Mississippi Legislature to purchase computer devices for every public school student, with local districts contributing 25 percent of the purchase price. However, if the legislature doesn’t purchase the computers, the districts will be required to use funds provided by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) act.
Winona-Montgomery Consolidated School District received $595,745 in ESSER funds and currently plans to use the money to fund the salary of a social worker to work with students to help meet individual needs during the pandemic; two certified nursing assistants to assist school nurses with additional duties like temperature checks and assessing student health; a computer technician to aid the district and parents with at-home learning; supplies like masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and additional cleaning expenses; and computers for teachers to facilitate learning at home.
Jackson said the cost to purchase 1,300 computers for the district’s students would cost $340,000.
The purchase of computers for students, either by the legislature or from ESSER funds, will be a reality, however, providing all students with internet accessibility will prove to be difficult, especially in rural counties like Montgomery where cellular and internet service is not available in all locations. Jackson said many Mississippi counties are facing the same challenge.
“Internet service has to be accessible for every student,” Jackson said.
Jackson said she is awaiting the return of the parent survey for the school board and administration to determine what option for opening schools is best.
“I’m glad that we have local control because our district is unique, and we can meet the needs of our students,” Jackson said.
She went on to say a decision will need to be made quickly, preferably by July 1 so the faculty and staff will know how to move forward in planning for the new school year.
“We are planning for the first three months,” Jackson said. “We can change things then if we need to.”
Jackson said when a decision is made, she wants to ensure teachers are provided with mental health resources for themselves and to provide support for returning students.
“We know some of our students are going to have some challenges,” Jackson said.
Board attorney Lane Greenlee suggested the board establish a policy for COVID-19 testing and what is required for students and teachers to return if they are exposed to the virus or have tested positive.
“Do we wait 14 days or until they have a negative test?” Greenlee asked.
Board vice president Cheryl Small, who is a nurse, said there have been issues of false negative tests due to tests being performed incorrectly, and she is concerned that false negatives need could pose a problem for students and faculty returning to school.
President Matt Surrell told the board that Holmes Community College is requiring two negative tests for faculty and students to return to class.
“The board will have to decide,” Greenlee said. “We need to create a policy.”
In other board business, Jackson presented Surrell a plaque honoring his five years of service as a member of the board of trustees. Surrell recently resigned his seat, and his last day will be June 30.
“When I graduated from Winona [High School] I wanted to come back and do something for the school, and the school board was perfect for that,” Surrell said. “I want to thank you.”
The board recessed until June 30 at 6 p.m.