Governor closes public schools until April 17; state testing is cancelled

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves said the decision to close the state’s schools was “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced Thursday that all public schools will be closed for at least another month.

Public schools were already closed this week after the governor requested schools to extend spring break to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Reeves announced on Facebook that he was signing an executive order that will close public schools until April 17.

This decision comes as the virus continues to spread across the state. As of Thursday morning, there were 50 confirmed cases according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

“This is not a decision that I take lightly,” Reeves said in a Facebook Live video. “In fact, in my nearly 17 years of serving the public, it is perhaps the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

School districts will continue to receive state funding, and teachers will continue to get paid. A day earlier, the Mississippi Legislature passed legislation that allows for city and county governments and school districts to offer paid leave for workers who are affected by the coronavirus.

The state Board of Education took action on Thursday to adjust school requirements that are affected by the closure. The board waived the requirement that schools must meet for 180 days, meaning districts do not have to make up the days lost due to coronavirus closures.

Earlier in the week, state Superintendent Carey Wright called for testing requirements to be cancelled for the 2019-20 school year. In Mississippi, K-12 students take 14 assessments required by state or federal law, or state board of education policy. State testing is now cancelled; the board voted to suspend state and federal testing requirements and allow the Mississippi Department of Education to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to waive federal testing and accountability requirements.

As a result, districts won’t receive new A-F ratings this school year since students are not taking the exams that help determine those scores. Districts’ current ratings will carry over into the 2020-2021 school year.

“This is considered a hold harmless year,” Wright said on a call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “We will not be assigning brand new grades.”

Both Reeves and state board members stressed that while schools are now officially closed, this does not mean learning will stop.

“School buildings are closed to the general public,” said board chair Jason Dean.”School is not closed.”

Dean said it is up to districts to decide on an individual basis whether teachers should continue reporting to school buildings, but encouraged them to follow the state health officer’s guidelines of no meetings of 10 or more people at a time.

Chief Academic Officer Nathan Oakley said the department is not requiring districts to implement distance learning, as the Institutions for Higher Learning did for colleges and universities did last week.

“It’s not as simple as saying we’re moving from face to face content delivery to an online product,” Oakley said. “We recognize that the capacity of districts to get technology and internet access into the hands of students is a challenge.”

Districts do need to consider how they can continue teaching students, however, Oakley said. Some school districts are already trying to create learning strategies — earlier this week, the Clinton Public School District announced it will be mailing all families a packet with two weeks of instructional materials, information on where free lunches will be offered, and directions for parents to come pick up an iPad for their students to use during this time apart.

Schools may receive help from the private sector as well. On Monday, C Spire announced it was working with schools to provide free wireless data for students. Although the delivery method of instruction for most schools is ambiguous, the board reiterated that learning must continue.

“School is just going to be different for at least a month,” Dean said. “School will continue for the (465, 913) children in schools in Mississippi.”

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