Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District is preparing for what Superintendent Eddie Peasant estimated to be roughly 250 students returning to their school campuses when the spring semester begins Tuesday, after spending the first semester learning virtually.
Peasant told the school board at its meeting Thursday that the majority of the returning students attend Partnership Middle School and Armstrong Junior High. To accommodate the influx, the district has brought back to campus some teachers who were instructing virtually and hired new teachers to fill longstanding vacancies. The district’s goal is to have no more than 22 students per classroom in the secondary grades.
“We’ve tried to weigh the numbers against the need to try and get them back in school and learning, but we … of course balance that with safety, being at the top of our priorities, at the same time,” Peasant said.
Peasant told The Dispatch after the meeting that the district had filled almost all of its eight teaching vacancies for the coming semester. While students are required to wear masks, Peasant said the district’s goal is to keep three to six feet of space between their desks in the classrooms. He also said the district will “make every effort” to keep students with teachers they had the first semester, though he added that wouldn’t be possible in all cases, since some of those teachers are still instructing virtually.
Peasant also told board members that the district expects to receive more Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) federal funds, which will be distributed through the state, “pretty soon.”
“They’re basically put in place to address facility needs and other academic needs that will work toward getting our students back in school, basically,” he said. “… Probably the top thing on most school districts’ list, unless they have brand new buildings across their district, will be looking at HVAC units and improving the air quality in schools. That’s probably one of the things on the top of our lists as far as those funds.”
However, board president Debra Prince questioned using those funds primarily for HVAC and other facility needs rather than academic needs, since ESSER funds can also be used to address “learning loss,” according to the federal regulations.
“There are a lot of things you can do to address learning loss going back to schools, right?” she said. “We’re not going to take up all our money in brick-and-mortar facility needs, right?
“Think about using money to address some of the learning loss of individual students, supplemental services to maybe help recoup some of what’s been lost,” she added.
Peasant said while the district likely wouldn’t use all the money on facility needs, making the facilities ready for all students to return to in-person learning will be a major priority for the funds.
“We have some … HVAC (and) communication facility issues that can be addressed and improve our ability to get more of our students back in,” he said.
In other business, the board approved a terms and conditions agreement for the district to receive $100,000 in grant funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund, which will pay for audio enhanced classrooms. Peasant told The Dispatch installing new audio equipment in the classrooms will help students learning virtually hear their teachers better, even when the teachers are moving around the classroom.
The board also approved an amendment to the administrative procedures that will allow employees to take an additional 10 days of paid time off due to COVID-19 quarantining through March 31. Only employees who did not take advantage of the extended two weeks’ paid time off under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act last year will be eligible to take that time, Assistant Superintendent Anna Guntharp said.
Finally, Peasant recognized the district’s employees of the year at the meeting.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.