The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is not the first disaster Cherie Labat has dealt with in her educational career.
The Columbus Municipal School District superintendent said she was prepared for this thanks to her experiences teaching on the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and guiding CMSD through the aftermath of the February 2019 tornado in Columbus.
“I feel like dealing with natural disasters helped to prepare for the decision-making, preparation and organization assistance that need to be in place in order to facilitate learning,” Labat said. “When you care about your kids and you know what they need, I think your heart leads your rationale.”
School closures statewide extended to April 17 with an order from Gov. Tate Reeves on Thursday morning. Administrators and teachers now have to plan a month’s worth of curriculum online and try to help students without broadband internet at home access the same materials as their peers. Legislators have already approved a bill that will allow school district employees to receive full pay during the closure.
Reeves’ order, followed by a vote of the State Board of Education, dispensed with all end-of-year testing and accountability requirements for 2019-20. But he and state board of education chairman Jason Dean both said children need to continue to learn while at home.
“School buildings are closed to the general public, (but) school is not closed,” Dean said in the board’s teleconferenced meeting Thursday shortly after the governor’s announcement. “We’re working diligently with the districts to try to ensure that those educational materials are delivered.”
District officials in the Golden Triangle said the extension did not change much of what teachers are already doing to adjust to distance learning, especially at CMSD, where Labat started the transition last week as soon as President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency.
Districts need to provide “structure and routine” to make sure all teachers are providing equitable resources to their students, and to keep students’ anxiety about the pandemic to a minimum, Lowndes County School District Deputy Superintendent Robin Ballard said.
“We know they’re picking up on what’s going on, especially the older students,” she said.
The importance of communication
CMSD, LCSD and the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District already use online learning platforms. Delivering an entire curriculum remotely instead of in person is the main thing teachers have to adjust to doing, CMSD Curriculum Coordinator Debbie Murray said.
The key to successfully teaching remotely and keeping both teachers and students on task is reliable, two-sided communication, Columbus High School Principal Craig Chapman said. CHS administration will continue to meet regularly with teachers via phone or video conference, he said.
“We have to try to keep it as close as possible to what we’ve done throughout the school year,” Chapman said.
SOCSD teachers will be available to answer questions from students and parents via email, phone or video call for two hours per day at least three days per week starting March 30, according to a Thursday press release from Superintendent Eddie Peasant.
“As parents who are managing work from home and your child’s learning from home, you don’t have to do everything at once,” Peasant said in the release. “You do not have to become a digital learning expert, and we are not expecting that of your child’s teacher either.”
SOCSD has a list of online learning resources for all grade levels in all subjects, including art and physical education, on its website. The district is neither requiring students to complete assignments nor teachers to teach digitally.
LCSD will enact stricter guidelines for teacher engagement with students to make sure all teachers “earn their compensation” and keep the workload manageable for parents and guardians, Ballard said.
“It’s such an unknown place that we’re going, and we don’t want anyone to feel like they’re carrying all of the load while someone is getting the same compensation for doing less,” she said. “We’ll put that on the principals to make sure they’re monitoring the engagement that teachers are providing.”
Labat and Cook Elementary School Principal Billie Smith both said teachers are intrinsically motivated to keep their students learning while schools are closed.
“Teaching comes from the heart, and we hate that this has happened, but we really want what’s best for the children,” Smith said.
MDE does not require districts to provide special education to students with disabilities during school closures but leaves it up to each district to do as it sees fit.
Bridging the internet access gap
CMSD set up several Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Columbus earlier this week by removing Wi-Fi routers from nine buses and installing them at elementary school campuses, the Brandon Central Services building and at Columbus community centers. The routers allow students to log in to the network within a 100-foot radius, meaning they need to drive to one of the locations but can still have better, less expensive internet access than they have at home.
Students’ login information from the hotspots will help the district determine which families need more help accessing educational resources, Murray said.
SOCSD will also provide hotspots “at accessible sites,” Peasant said, and both SOCSD and CMSD will hand out printed packets with the lunches they started distributing to students at certain schools this week. SOCSD is also delivering meals via bus route. CMSD started distributing packets this week, and SOCSD will start March 27.
LCSD will start its own grab-and-go lunch program Monday at West Lowndes High School, New Hope High School and Caledonia Elementary School. The program will run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and LCSD Superintendent Sam Allison said distributing packets with lunches “is a possibility.”
The district will keep track of which students the teachers have not been in contact with and have the principals reach out to them, Allison said.
It’s difficult to ensure that all children receive the same information and materials when they come from a variety of circumstances at home, including parental involvement in their education, Ballard said.
“Do they have a parent going behind them saying, ‘Your teacher said you’ve got to do this,’ or is the student pretty much on their own?” Ballard said. “It’s a hodgepodge. It’s hard to treat everyone equally on a set standard when you have a hodgepodge.”
4-County Electric Power Association was already under pressure to expand broadband access to rural areas in the Golden Triangle, and one broadband project could cost the co-op $110 million. The extended school closures have made the issue more relevant than ever, said Brian Clark, 4-County CEO and a member of the LCSD school board.
“We’ve already researched a whole lot of it, (and) it gives us more examples of what’s needed in the community,” Clark said.
Sixth through 12th-graders in LCSD all have MacBooks they can bring home with them, and instructional technology is part of the curriculum, but it will not work for students without broadband, Ballard said.
“Our teachers were ready for this,” she said. “What is not ready is the internet infrastructure and capabilities out in the rural areas of our district.”
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.