State unveils options for K-12 schools to reopen in the fall

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Magee Elementary School students participate in phonics and phonemic awareness exercise Friday, December 6, 2019.

This week the Mississippi Department of Education released guidelines for how K-12 schools should reopen in the fall.

In a document titled “Considerations for reopening Mississippi Schools,” the department outlines a three month timeline with information for school districts to consider as they plan for the upcoming school year. These guidelines were created with a group of 10 superintendents across the state, and list three options for how schools should reopen: traditional, hybrid, or virtual. The guidelines will be updated every three months depending on the coronavirus and its effects. The Institutions of Higher Learning already made the decision that the state’s public colleges and universities will “resume traditional operations” in the fall.

Traditional reopening would mean students are physically present in school so long as districts can continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state department of health guidelines. This plan suggests schools make adjustments to transportation, screen students daily, and limit student movement and gatherings so that social distancing is possible. Additionally, schools are encouraged to create a plan for students and staff who are unable to come to school due to health issues.

A hybrid reopening would mean some combination of in-person instruction and distance learning. Schools could adopt “A/B days,” meaning students would be split into two groups which report to school on alternating days. The guidelines also have the option for elementary students to report to school for in-person instruction, while students in higher grades complete their work through distance learning. Schools could also do some combination of the two options, the guidelines state.

Virtual reopening would have students return to school entirely through distance learning, but the guideline warns that districts must take into consideration whether their community has sufficient internet bandwidth and can mitigate “the digital divide among families.”

The state is not mandating which option districts take. “Local school districts are responsible for designing school schedules that best meet the needs of their communities,” the department said in a press release. 

At a Mississippi State Board of Education meeting Thursday, members suspended several policies to help school districts meet requirements and choose one of these three avenues.

For example, in the past the department has required that all students receive 5.5 hours of instructional time per day. That has now been reduced to 4 hours. A similar exception was made for high schools that use Carnegie unit credits to measure course completion. Previously, there was a 140-hour instructional requirement for one-credit courses and a 70-hour instructional requirement for half-credit courses. Now, that will be waived as long as districts, “develop a plan to ensure students master the course content,” the press release states. 

Those plans must be approved by districts’ local school boards and posted to their websites by September 30. 

Also, school districts no longer have to seek a waiver from the State Board of Education or Commission on School Accreditation if they can’t comply with student-teacher ratios. 

Some policies that have been in place will remain for the 2020-2021 school year —districts still have to establish graduation requirements that meet the state’s minimum graduation requirements. 

Before the first day of school, local school districts also have to create criteria for whether a student can move on to the next grade as well as come up with “uniform grading policies,” MDE stated in its press release.  

If the previous school year is any indication, a hybrid return will likely be popular option. During the 2019-20 school year when school buildings closed because of the pandemic, the department surveyed school districts on how they were delivering instruction. In all, 13 said they were using distance or virtual learning, 16 were sending home packets, and 134 were using a blended approach of the two methods. Five districts said they were using alternative approaches, such as phone calls and peer tutoring, according to the department.

Going entirely virtual is a complicated and expensive undertaking the department is actively working on, as the start of a new school year is roughly eight weeks away. Online learning is not currently a reality in many districts. Census Bureau data shows that statewide, almost one-fifth of Mississippi households do not have a computer and nearly one-third don’t have broadband, the federal standard for internet speeds.

Last month, State Superintendent Carey Wright presented a digital learning plan to the Mississippi Legislature which highlighted five main areas: technology, curriculum, training, computer security and internet connectivity as resources needed for districts to fully implement a digital learning plan. Requirements would include roughly 300,000 laptops or tablets, 40,000 WiFi hotspots, eight high-quality curricula programs, training for students and families, professional development for 30,000 teachers and 450 technology staff, device management support and software licenses, costing nearly $250 million. 

The state received millions in federal funds via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act which the department intends to use to help pay for this. Gov. Tate Reeves received $34.6 million in a specific fund to be used for education, and the state’s K-12 schools received $169.8 million through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Separately, the Mississippi Legislature has control of $1.2 billion in federal funds to be used for coronavirus relief efforts. 

To pay for the $250 million price tag, the department has requested $200 million from the Legislature’s portion of federal funds. The Legislature is still in session working out the state budget, so whether the department is granted those funds remains to be seen.

To pay for the rest, $33 million would have to come from local school districts’ portion of ESSER funds; $5 million from the department’s CARES Act funds; $5 million from the governor’s portion of education CARES Act funds, and $7 million in private funds were requested from the Mississippi Alliance of Nonprofits, according to the department.

“This is such a wonderful opportunity for the state, and…absent COVID-19 and the funding that comes with that, we probably would never have seen this kind of investment in the school districts of Mississippi in my lifetime,” said board member John Kelly during the Thursday meeting.