Guidelines laid out for the reopening of public schools


The Mississippi Department of Education last week released guidelines for the reopening of the state's K-12 public schools this fall.

The guidelines, titled "Considerations for reopening Mississippi Schools," were the product of a collaboration amongst nine school district leaders from across the state, including Madison County Superintendent of Eduaction Charlotte Seals.

The guidelines offer three options for how schools should reopen in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic — virtually, traditionally or a hybrid of the two.

"The experience has given me a great opportunity to network with other superintendents across the state," Seals said. "I've always believed we are stronger when we work together and share our ideas and concerns. Working together, we are stronger. The situation is very fluid so many different things when you look at considerations. School may seem like it's a long way off, but when you look at what we have to do to prepare for it, it's really not."

A traditional reopening would have students physically present in school, with individual schools observing social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. That plan encourages schools to develop plans for students and staff who are unable to be present in the schools because of health concerns and adjust plans for transportation, limiting student movement in the hallways and at gatherings and ensure that students are screened daily.

A virtual reopening would mirror the procedures schools put in place at the end of the last calendar school year, where students receive instruction purely through distance learning. That plan faces serious issues regarding students' access to sufficient internet bandwidth in rural parts of the state, as well as individual households' access to the internet.

A hybrid plan would include a combination of in-person instruction and distance learning techniques. According to the plan, schools would adopt an alternating-day structure that would split students into two groups to report to school on different days of the week for in-person instruction. That method could also be split, the guidelines suggest, based on grades, with elementary students reporting for in-person instruction and high school students completing work through distance learning.

The state has not indicated it would mandate which option each school district should choose.

"The MDE will continue to support districts during this summer planning phase and once schools reopen," said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. "We are working in consultation with the Office of the Governor, the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to ensure that schools open safely and so they can provide every student with the high-quality education they deserve."

Teachers at Madison Central, Germantown, Ridgeland and Velma Jackson are tentatively scheduled to return to the schools on Aug. 3, with students reporting on Aug. 6. Seals said she wasn't ready to commit to one model over another for Madison County Schools, adding that remaining flexible is crucial in such a fluid situation.

The state Department of Health has reported just 1,396 confirmed cases of the novel Coronavirus and zero deaths among Mississippians under the age of 18. That case number represents just 7.1 percent of all cases here.

While that data may be encouraging for schools, the broader concern centers around concerning trends in different "hot spots" around the state. Overall, Mississippi cases have continued to rise, driven by both an increase in testing capacity and community spread.

"That was one of our first discussions is that these guidelines must be flexible, because we're trying to hit a moving target," Seals said. "That's why they are just guidelines at this point - we may have to adjust them."

Seals pointed to the Madison County School Board as a perfect example. The board met last week and discussed students' re-entry into extracurricular activities. The district put out guidelines for its athletic directors and faculty sponsors for proper social distancing, best practices and screening students for health concerns.

"But the board knows I may have to go back and tweak that process," Seals said. "We may have to offer new recommendations or there could be changes in governor's executive orders. You just don't know. That's why the guidelines we are working on have to be fluid."

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