Magee Elementary School teacher Deonne Wittman works with students in a whole group phonics exercise on Dec. 6, 2019.

The vast majority of Mississippi teachers in a recent survey said they understood what was expected of them when schools abruptly closed and switched to distance learning this spring, though many also expressed concerns about students’ ability to participate in virtual learning this fall.

This is according to a survey conducted in April by Teach Plus Mississippi in collaboration with the Mississippi Department of Education to find out how nearly 2,500 teachers felt about the impact of the pandemic on school closures, access to virtual learning, and reopening of schools.

In total, 70 percent teach in schools that serve low-income students, and the teachers teach in elementary, middle and high schools.

Survey findings include:

  • 86 percent of teachers reported communication efforts about students, teachers, and schools have been effective; 64 percent “strongly agreed” that they felt well-informed what was expected of them concerning virtual instruction this spring
  • 83 percent of teachers said they had the tools to do their jobs when the switch to virtual learning happened. However, they expressed concern about the challenges students face with virtual learning, including lack of access to support, internet and devices.
  • 87 percent of students engaged in online learning through virtual assignments, but only 49 percent engaged in online learning with teacher-led instruction. Additionally, 88 percent were given packets or paper based lessons or activities.

“There’s a concern about whether or not school administrators will adopt appropriate measures to reduce the risk of a new outbreak, such as social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting of the building and supplies, and innovative class/school policies,” the report said. “Teachers also worry that despite preventive measures, there may still be a new outbreak, thus forcing schools to abruptly return to virtual learning.”

This prediction falls in line with what health officials are predicting. This week, some of the state’s top health officials urged Mississippians to take the virus seriously as the number of confirmed cases continue to climb.

“We’ve got more virus than we’ve ever had and I hate that our predictions have been true, but we’re predicting more in the fall,” said State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs in a press conference Wednesday. “So it’s going to be worse in the fall than it is now.”

In addition to distance learning, educators worry about students’ physical and emotional health including trauma, isolation, food insecurity and “learning loss.”

The Mississippi Department of Education announced in June that schools have three options for the new school year: They can operate in a traditional, face to face setting, virtually, or some combination of the two. It is not mandating which option districts should choose. On Thursday the department shared a message with superintendents that districts are required to create a plan approved by their local school boards, and post it publicly by July 31.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who has the authority to close schools through an executive order like he did in the spring, said this week he is still “100 percent committed to schools reopening in a safe, responsible way.”

“We are a state that is different than some other states in that we give great autonomy to our local school districts … this is a topic in which we want to give each school district the opportunity to set guidelines and plans,” Reeves said.

With a strict deadline looming, school districts are faced with tough decisions on how to reopen schools. Some school districts are planning a mix of virtual and traditional instruction while others are allowing parents to decide.

[Survey: How should schools in Mississippi reopen in the fall?]

For example, the Desoto County School District, the state’s largest district with about 35,000 students, will allow families to choose virtual-only or traditional-only models for return. Elementary schools will stay on a traditional schedule and secondary schools may possibly move to a hybrid schedule, the Return To Learn plan stated. The plan details academic, child nutrition, transportation, facility, parental guidelines and more.

“Every family is unique so we’re trying to work with families, students have health conditions, and students live at home with family members who have health conditions and we’re just making sure we’re meeting the needs,” Cory Uselton, superintendent, said.

Students’ first day is August 6.

In the Clarksdale Municipal School District, Superintendent Joe Nelson said they are currently “in draft mode” with their reopening plan, but are leaning towards virtual and hybrid models.

“It’s difficult to go back to traditional because of social distancing … transporting students on busses,” Nelson said. “Right now, we’re putting together prerequisites of what that looks like and what we should do and how that looks, like a lot of professional development around it for everybody. We want to make sure we have clear expectations of what we want to accomplish.”

In a letter posted on the district’s website, hybrid instruction consists of in-person with limited students in the classroom and on busses whereas virtual instruction focuses on distance learning with a device for every student and teacher and internet access.

Additional barriers to implement virtual learning for the Clarksdale schools like other rural districts in the Mississippi Delta is access to rural broadband. Nelson adds the real challenge is when funds will be released to help in executing their plan.

“How quickly we get that solved is important to our students in the Delta and Clarksdale,” he said.

The state Legislature recently approved millions of coronavirus stimulus dollars to go towards digital learning and broadband access in Mississippi: $150 million of those funds will help pay for online learning and technology, and a separate $50 million will help with K-12 connectivity specifically.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.