Students across the state of Mississippi have begun returning to school for the first time since leaving mid-March. Still in the midst of a global pandemic, operations have changed and the way in which children are learning and teachers are instructing has shifted, drastically for most.

According to State Superintendent Carey Wright, school operations are largely being left up to each individual district.

“I think they’re trying to do what’s best for their area of the state. I think there are various hotspots across the state, so I think some were a little more cautious about in person than others,” said Wright.

She said many districts did return to school in person. Others are resorting to a hybrid method, while more still have suspended in person classes for the time being. One of those is the Jackson Public School District.  JPS has chosen not to return to the school building until January. Hinds County, where JPS is located, has been a hotspot for the virus for many months.

Wright indicated that the Mississippi Department of Education has been working very closely with Dr. Thomas Dobbs of the Mississippi State Department of Health on how to handle cases or outbreaks within schools. She said MSDH has provided each local superintendent with tools, such as a decision-making matrix to help schools make educated choices if and when COVID-19 begins to appear among their students and faculty.

The State Superintendent said that so far local superintendents have done a good job following the guidelines set before them, including social distancing, taking temperatures and overall limiting the amount of people in each space.

With teaching measures changed in this new learning environment, distance learning and the need for broadband access has been at an all-time high.

“Connectivity is huge. I can’t emphasize that enough. But it’s not just Mississippi,” said Wright. “This is consistent across the nation, particularly in rural states and rural areas.”

The Legislature appropriated $50 million in HB 1788 to address connectivity. This includes expanding broadband, data plans and getting access to students and teachers. Likewise, SB 3044 appropriated $150 million for devices and learning management systems.

The way those dollars will be disbursed has been finalized by MDE based on the needs in the district. With this money and a better handle on distance learning, Wright felt confident schools could handle the challenges of the new year.

“Is it optimal? That’s another issue because we can’t guarantee connectivity for all yet. This is just step one. This is a huge step,” said Wright. “I think we are in a much better place because now we know what worked and what didn’t work so superintendents are planning around that.”

The Legislature was also able to pass the teacher incentive package in early August, part of the overall education budget, after Governor Reeves vetoed the education budget when the program was left out of the initial budget bill. Those dollars are calculated based on the last accountability grade from a school. It is then sent directly to the districts.  She said those dollars typically arrive around the Christmas holidays where they are then disbursed to teachers.

While many are hoping things go back to “normal” soon, Wright said distance learning might not be a thing only for the pandemic. Wright said she does believe what is happening right now will cause a real change in how education is provided in the future.

In the long-term, she hopes to see it become a priority for connectivity to be available for every students and teacher across the state. Ensuring this will allow schools to pivot more easily into different types of learning in the event of another disaster like a tornado or hurricane.

For now, adjustments are being made across the board, including state testing.

At this time, Wright said MDE is not applying for a waiver to forego this year’s state testing. During the 2019-2020 academic year, state testing was waived for the end of the year due to the unusual circumstances surrounding school closures. Wright said as of now they are looking at their options.

“I think it’s very important that we get a handle on what education looks like across our state. How badly did this COVID-19 impact learning?” said Wright.

Prior to the pandemic Mississippi was making historic gains in academics. She said one way to get a handle on it is some way of state testing. There are conversations within MDE as to what testing should or could look like this year.

The future seems to be unclear across the board on how COVID-19 will continue to impact day to day lives. Wright said district superintendents are working hard to maintain a doable plan for their schools as they stay nimble enough to adjust during uncertain times.