Daiyondra Banks and a few classmates perform classwork via laptops at Jefferson County Junior High School in Fayette. Banks also can view classmates participating from home. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

As the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads rapidly in schools across Mississippi, the state board of education recently issued a directive to give school districts flexibility in how they teach their students.

The policy change allows school districts to implement a blend of virtual and in-person learning in an attempt to reduce the number of students in a classroom at one time and stem COVID-19 transmission. Schools may do this until Oct. 31, the policy states.

This was the first major adjustment this school year that allowed flexibility for school districts in the current school year. Starting the school year, districts were required to return their students to in-person learning, and the criteria for a virtual learning option was steep. 

The mid-August decision came after massive virus outbreaks disrupted school just days after students returned to the classroom, despite medical professionals spending weeks warning that the delta variant affected children more than previous virus strains.

In contrast, school districts going into last school year were under a mask mandate issued by Gov. Tate Reeves and had the ability to offer 100% virtual or hybrid learning.

Two weeks after the policy was adopted, Mississippi Today asked several districts across the state how they’re handling it. We found that district-by-district responses differed depending on the beliefs of school leaders and the situations specific to their schools.

While some appreciate this new flexibility, administrators in areas without connectivity say it does little to help them. And parents in districts without any options besides in-person learning are saying it makes no sense — and even going so far as to homeschool their children.

In the Clinton School District, school is taught in person. A group of parents have lobbied the administration for more options but to no avail. Several parents told Mississippi Today they pulled their children out of the district recently.  

Natasha Zinda is the mother of three children in the district who learned virtually last year. She has lupus, so she is at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19.

“For them to switch it up so suddenly this year while the numbers are higher, and we’re in a more dire situation and hospitals are on the verge of collapse — what the hell, basically?” she said. 

While she hasn’t officially withdrawn her children, she is looking at homeschooling options.

Clinton Public School District Superintendent Andy Schoggin said the district chose not to offer a virtual option for several reasons.

“Last year, we saw that having students inside the classroom not only impacted their academic success in a positive manner, but positively impacted the emotional well-being of our students as well,” he said in a statement. He also pointed to guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics that referred to research showing opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission when safety measures – such as universal mask-wearing – are put in place. 

He said the state’s decision to no longer give schools the flexibility they had last year in regards to meeting the attendance and instructional time requirements in virtual learning impacted their decision. 

“Last year, MDE provided school districts with broad flexibility when it came to what virtual instruction looked like,” he said. “This past April, MDE voted to end those pandemic-related flexibilities.”

When this academic year began, schools could offer virtual learning to students, though they had to meet certain requirements (such as having reliable internet connectivity) if they chose to do so. While only a few have offered that option, more are transitioning to a hybrid schedule, a mixture of in-person and virtual learning in which students alternate days they are on campus. 

Nearby Jackson Public Schools recently approved offering additional virtual options for certain students. Superintendent Errick Greene said he was getting a lot of feedback from concerned families and employees about the surge in COVID-19 cases and the highly transmissible delta variant.

Jackson Public Schools students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade can now learn virtually for the rest of the semester after the board approved the new policy last week. Greene said the district decided to provide the option to those students because they are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, which is currently only authorized for ages 12 and older.

Students whose parents opt in to virtual learning must have reliable internet connectivity, ensure regular attendance for the entire instructional day, and sign an acknowledgment of district policy, among others. 

Greene said he and other administrators have been hearing concerns from employees and families about the surge in COVID-19 cases and the safety of young students. 

“Learning in a hybrid model is very difficult for continuity of learning,” said Greene. “We’re opting to focus our adjustments here on the virtual learning option.” 

DeSoto County Schools, which remains a mask-optional district, announced it would transition Hernando High School to a hybrid schedule beginning last week. The high school was operating virtually after what Superintendent Cory Uselton described as a “cluster of cases or potential outbreaks” developed among the student body. 

A middle school in the district is also currently operating on a hybrid schedule. 

But for some rural districts, virtual and hybrid learning are not options, according to administrators.

In the Smith County School District, the board decided to shut the schools down entirely for a two-week period and make up the days at another time. Smith County School District Superintendent Nick Hillman said the reason for that is because so many children don’t have reliable internet connectivity and his belief that virtual learning is not effective for some.

“Virtual is just not the best thing for us to do. Even if you have internet, elementary kids have to be taught — they’re not self learners like older kids,” said Hillman, who estimates about half of the students in the district don’t have internet at home. 

The district hasn’t invested in hot spots because it “doesn’t do any good unless you have cell phone service,” he continued. “It just wouldn’t work well in this area.” 

He’s hopeful the two-week break will slow down the spread of COVID-19, though he knows there is a risk of students gathering in groups regardless. 

Lincoln County School District Superintendent has said virtual learning is not an option for his district, but two school systems recently transitioned to a hybrid model due to COVID-19 outbreaks and resulting quarantines. 

While not all districts can implement this without issue,the blend of in-person and virtual learning aims to reduce the number of students in a building at one time and hopefully slow transmission of the fast-spreading delta variant.

“The penetration of this virus knows no boundaries,” said Ronnie McGehee, a member of the State Board of Education and former superintendent of schools in Madison County. “… To continue instruction, educators need the flexibility to protect their communities.”

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.