by Blake Alsup
photos by Lindsay Pace
As children in Northeast Mississippi return to school for the first time since mid-March, when buildings closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things will be different when they walk through the doors. From daily temperature checks to eating lunch in the classroom, children will have a lot of changes to adjust to.
Most districts in our area will require masks in some capacity while children are at school, and those that do have indicated that masks will be provided for their students.
In the Corinth School District, masks will be required any time social distancing is not possible, like walking in the hallway or while riding the bus. The district will provide two cloth facemasks for each student to wear when needed, and they will take them home where parents will be encouraged to wash them regularly.
CSD Superintendent Lee Childress said that while masks will not be required in classrooms where students can properly social distance, “if a parent chooses for their child to wear a mask all the time, we’re certainly going to respect the parent’s wish and the child’s wish.” Other districts will take the same approach.
One creative option to keep a child’s mask clean, and avoid laying it on a table or stuffing it into a pocket, is to attach it to a lanyard where it can easily be unclipped for use throughout the day.
While students in the New Albany School District will be encouraged rather than required to wear masks, Superintendent Lance Evans said it’s a good idea for parents to go ahead and begin practicing with younger children. Parents can help acclimate their student to wearing a mask and explain to them why they should wear a face covering, wash their hands frequently and practice social distancing.
It’s important to remain flexible as school starts back. Every back-to-school plan will vary as districts try different approaches to reopen, like South Tippah School District, which will operate on a hybrid schedule for the first week and a half when school resumes on Aug. 5, with girls and boys attending on alternate days before returning to a traditional schedule with all students present five days per week starting Aug. 17.
Meanwhile, Corinth will group children in kindergarten through sixth grade with the same classmates they had during the previous school year, with a few minor modifications, in an attempt to make them feel more comfortable as they return to a traditional five-day per week schedule on July 27.
Students and parents should embrace technology going into the 2020-21 school year, as it will play a major role regardless of whether learning takes place in the classroom or online.
Local districts will use a large portion of their allotted Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund and other CARES Act funds to improve technology in the classroom and distance learning capabilities. That means if a school district wasn’t already one-to-one, meaning it has a laptop or tablet device for every student, it likely will be this year.
For example, STSD will purchase devices for each of its students K-12 and incorporate a new learning management system, Canvas, for regular use in the classroom. Having the devices and software on hand and in regular use will make any potential transitions to virtual learning during the fall semester seamless, according to STSD Superintendent Tony Elliott.
But bumps in the road, including occasional school closures, will likely occur during the fall semester.
Tupelo Public School District Superintendent Rob Picou has repeatedly said intermittent closures are to be expected. And in its 2020-21 reopening blueprint, TPSD said the superintendent may be required to close a school or multiple schools due to potential outbreaks.
Superintendents across Northeast Mississippi agree that uncertainty is the biggest challenge they have faced throughout the pandemic, and particularly while planning to reopen.
Evans said there’s a constant changing of information that makes planning difficult, especially with a wide array of things to plan for — students’ social and emotional needs, special accommodations some students receive, extracurricular activities, etc.
School begins on Aug. 6 for New Albany students, and the district waited until early July to solidify and release its reopening plan because of safety guidance from state and federal agencies changing daily.
“We said, ‘Let’s let it change as much as it’s going to change until we can’t wait for it to change anymore,’” Evans said. “That’s been the most difficult part.”
Local schools will continue to apply lessons learned during the spring semester as they reopen in August.
Booneville School District Superintendent Todd English said the most important lesson learned was that “there’s more than one way to educate a student.”
“As educators, we become fixated on straight rows, 1950s-60s-style education, but the reality is that we have to be flexible and adaptable,” English said.
English said the bottom line is doing what’s best for the student in whatever situation there is, with whatever resources are available.
That’s how all teachers, staff and school administrators made it through the 2019-20 school year, and it’s how they will approach the upcoming school year as well.