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Reeves weighs ‘life or death’ school reopening options

Gov. Tate Reeves, the only official who can issue a statewide mandate that postpones school or forces virtual learning, finds himself in a tough political position as schools across the state are just days from resuming in-person instruction.

As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are skyrocketing in Mississippi, many parents and teachers are rallying across the state and asking Reeves to postpone the start of school. They say already cash-strapped school districts can’t handle the demands of virus preparation and warn that students, teachers and staff will suffer.

Meanwhile, many parents are worried about how they’ll keep their jobs or handle childcare if their kids don’t start school on time. Parents and teachers alike express deep concern over students’ wellbeing if they miss school and in-person interaction in a rural state where many districts lack the ability to provide adequate distance learning.

The state’s 138 districts have been asked to decide for themselves when and how to reopen, and they face a Friday deadline to submit their plans to the state.

For now, Reeves is holding off on any statewide edicts about public school operations as most schools are set to return to the classroom the first full week of August.

“It has long been the view of Mississippians that we want local control of education,” Reeves said this week.

Though he has made clear he expects schools to reopen soon and to provide in-person classes, Reeves said he will review the districts’ plans carefully and decide if any statewide mandates for schools are required.

“It’s not something I want to do, and it’s not something I can tell you with certainty I will have to do,” Reeves said. “… Those of you who have watched me over the last 16 or 17 years will know that I am not scared to make a decision.”

No matter his decision, Reeves will face criticism.

Some advocates and educators have called on Reeves or the Mississippi Department of Education to provide more leadership on the issue. MDE says neither the department of State Board of Education has the authority to delay school reopening or mandate any closures. Reeves, who has broad emergency authority, said he wants to leave it to local school districts if possible.

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said that while schools face an unprecedented challenge, “our state’s leaders are nowhere to be found.”

“There’s no standardized guidance,” Jones said. “There is no mask mandate in schools. There is no plan in place to support districts who lack the resources to have an effective distance-learning model. Teachers are being asked to sanitize their own classrooms. And educators across the state are terrified to go back into schools, afraid for their own health and the health of their families and their students.”

The Mississippi State Medical Association and state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians have called for the state to not reopen classrooms until pandemic cases are on a “downward trajectory,” which does not appear to be in the offing any time soon. They urged a delay until at least Sept. 1, and called for a mask mandate for everyone in schools.

But Reeves indicated the state is not likely to waive the “180-day rule,” a state law that requires schools to provide at least 180 days of instruction each year by June 30. And, he said, those schools contemplating 100 percent virtual classes “are ignoring the reality that we are going to have testing that occurs in the 2020-2021 school year.”

All states are struggling with similar questions and debate over school restart. State plans are mixed, with some having strict statewide mandates and others allowing local decisions as Reeves wants to do.

In Alabama, the state’s superintendent has urged all schools to reopen on regular schedule, but individual districts will ultimately decide. Arkansas’ governor has called for in-person classes to open in the fall, but urged schools to be ready with virtual classes as well. Florida’s top education official issued an order for all schools to reopen and provide normal services. Many states are still trying to figure it out.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs this week was asked if the Mississippi Health Department could provide schools COVID-19 case metrics for when it’s safe to reopen, when to close buildings and teach remotely.

“There’s not an easy answer,” said Dobbs, “not a specific number.”

Dobbs noted that given the current trajectory of the virus in Mississippi, school reopenings may be short lived.

“There may be some schools that have to close pretty quickly after they open,” Dobbs said. “It just depends on if there are outbreaks.”

He said that what appears to be less transmission among younger children and experience from day cares shows some promise, particularly for younger grades.

“We never closed down the day cares,” Dobbs said. “I’m not saying we never saw cases in day cares, but there were no major outbreaks.”

Reeves last week vowed: “I am going to do what I think is best for kids, and let the politics play out however they play out.”

As to criticism about the state not providing standardized rules and mandates for school reopenings so far, Reeves said: “Many of these are the same people who for years said stay away from them and stay out of their business.”

“Now they are calling me, asking, ‘Hey, will you please make these decisions for us?’,” Reeves said.

Still, the political rhetoric hasn’t eased the concerns of many educators across the state.

“Make no mistake: Schools will eventually close,” Jones said. “It can happen safely now, with a comprehensive plan in place, or it can happen when the first outbreak happens, or when the unthinkable happens and we lose a member of a school community. This is quite literally an issue of life or death, and the ripple effects of this absence of leadership will be felt far beyond the confines of a school building.”

A model for reopening?

The Corinth School District, known for innovation and its “year-’round” school schedule, has already reopened on its normal start date, July 27. Reeves said he will be watching Corinth schools closely over the next few weeks to see if the district offers lessons that can be applied statewide.

Corinth is offering in-person school, with optional virtual classes. Superintendent Lee Childress said he expects about 13% to 18% of parents will have chosen virtual teaching for their kids this fall.

Children and school staff in Corinth each morning walk through thermal temperature scanners set up at strategic locations so everyone is checked. Many are checked again during the school day. So far, Childress said after the first couple of days, no one had an elevated temperature or symptoms.

Corinth schools are requiring face masks, and providing them to students and staff. All students have to wear them as they are transported to and from school and moving within buildings. For pre-K through third grades, masks are not required during instruction — although many are still wearing them — but teachers are working to maintain social distancing. For grades four through 12, students are required to wear masks all day unless there is a setting allows them to maintain social distancing.

Hand sanitizer is available throughout the schools, classrooms and other spaces are being reconfigured for distancing students and teachers are disinfecting classrooms at the end of each day, among many other safety protocols, Childress said. Meals are being eaten in classrooms instead of cafeterias.

If a teacher or student comes down with COVID-19, Childress said, the district has plans in place, including contact tracing and notification of anyone potentially exposed. Childress said a positive case would not necessarily mean whole classes or grades being dismissed and quarantined.

“It will depend on the circumstances,” said Childress, who added that the Health Department has given schools guidance, provided published guidelines, webinars and video conferences for school leaders.

Childress said he, his school board and staff have worked diligently on reopening plans and safety protocols since the pandemic hit Mississippi in March. He said his district involved the community in the decisions and he has kept them informed of the plans with regular Facebook live chats. He said MDE and the Health Department offered guidance and assistance, and he had no criticism of lack of state mandates or leadership.

“Ultimately, when it gets down to making those decisions — when to reopen, what strategy will be in place — that is a local school decision and should be left up to the local school district board,” Childress said. “… A school is a reflection of its community. Every community is facing a different situation, different transmission rates … Those different things should allow for the flexibility for you to make the decisions for what is best for your districts.”

As for pushing school start dates back much further this year, Childress said, “I think whether you open in July or August or September or October, we’re still going to have to deal with it.”

The virtual approach

Last week, Jackson Public Schools, the second-largest school district in the state, announced it would provide completely virtual learning in the fall. When asked about Jackson Public Schools plan to reopen with online-only teaching, Reeves said he didn’t want to discuss a specific district’s plan yet but doubts some schools have the ability to provide an adequate education with distance learning only.

Of the school districts that have made their reopening plans public so far, most appear to be opting for in-person schooling, at least as an option.

Reeves said he has reviewed some districts’ plans and, “Some of them look very good, and some do not.” He said he expects to make a decision late this week or early next on any state intervention or mandates.

Reeves has urged school leaders to “think outside the box,” and be innovative with reopening plans.

Maurice Smith, superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated School District, said his district is “going all virtual.”

“We’re going to open August 20, but that is subject to change and we will reevaluate where we are depending on the number of cases coming out of Bolivar County,” Smith said. “We chose the virtual route because of concern for our students and staff. About a week ago Bolivar county was added to a list of counties that had a high coronavirus positive rate. So for those reasons, we felt like it was the prudent choice.”

Smith said he’s glad his school board had autonomy to decide what’s best locally.

“I would have preferred that the state would have been a little more helpful with guidance as it relates to receiving funding and timely order of electronic devices,” Smith said.

Reeves said Mississippi schools are receiving a total of “half a billion dollars” in federal funds through the CARES Act and other measures to defray pandemic costs. He said that after conversations with the vice president and others in Washington this week, he expects a fourth round of federal funding will include “a significant portion” for school restart expenses.

Childress said purchasing personal protection equipment and making changes has not caused his district any financial hardship so far, and that federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding has helped cover expenses.

But some are concerned that poorer districts, already struggling financially, will have a tougher time coping with reopening safely.

“I don’t anticipate a problem there,” Reeves said. “Will there be challenges? Yes. I don’t want to minimize those, but I don’t think they will be financial in nature.”

By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today with Kelsey Betz contributing.

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