Schools are now allowed to implement hybrid schedules — or a combination of virtual learning and in-person school days — after the State Board of Education approved a temporary policy revision on Thursday.
The board voted unanimously to allow school districts to utilize this schedule until Oct. 31 of this year. The Mississippi Department of Education cited the increased number of COVID-19 cases among school-aged children as the reason for bringing the policy to the board.
Hybrid schedules differ from one district to another but generally involve half of a school’s student body learning virtually and the other half in-person for part of the week. The two groups then swap, with the former virtual learners coming into the school while the former in-person students learn virtually.
The goal is to minimize the number of children students on a school campus at one time and to reduce transmission of the virus. Last week 20,334 students were in quarantine across 803 schools, according to state Department of Health data. More than 7,400 students, teachers and staff tested positive for the virus.
“We did confer with the Mississippi Department of Health (on this). We were hearing from superintendents who were expressing concern about the inability to provide adequate social distancing space in the schools,” said Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “The Department of Health seems to think this is about an 8-week window, so we thought this would provide some relief to districts that are having trouble with that.”
The news comes as Children’s of Mississippi announced its highest-ever number of pediatric patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 on Thursday. Over the weekend, an eighth grader in Smith County School District died several days after being diagnosed with the virus.
The policy may be extended beyond Oct. 31 depending upon the status of the pandemic.
Board member Ronnie McGehee asked about the possibility of making the policy retroactive to the beginning of the school year, but that was not considered.
“The penetration of this virus knows no boundaries. And it doesn’t matter if you’re small sized district, or medium or large … To continue instruction, educators need the flexibility to protect their communities,” he said.
Last year, schools had the option of using an all virtual, hybrid or traditional in-person model.
This school year, the board on July 15 required schools to offer in-person learning as the primary mode of teaching for the 2021-22 school year. Local school boards may develop specific policies regarding virtual options for students who have medical conditions and district-wide virtual instruction in the event of a coronavirus outbreak, weather event, or some other emergency.
Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford said at the time the department brought the policy to the board, “we did not anticipate the rapid rise in COVID cases so early in the school year.” The board last met on July 15, four days before the state saw its first big spike in daily cases of COVID-19.
But when the board met, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs was already publicly expressing his concern about a “surge of cases in kids” as a result of the spread of the delta variant. The state had also that week seen its highest single-day caseload to date since March.