Local schools preparing to open doors next month

Kathryn McCollum and Scott Elliott put the finishing touches around the Saltillo Primary School sign Monday morning.

Maintenance workers Kathryn McCollum and Scott Elliott worked Monday outside Saltillo Primary School weed eating and mowing grass in preparation for the opening of school on August 6. Inside, Principal Brad Jackson and his staff prepared for registration while Lee County Schools workers stripped and waxed the cafeteria floor. It seemed business as usual to ready the school for a usual opening day.

But opening day for the 2020-21 school year is anything but usual. If there is one thing certain about the reopening of schools in Lee County – and across the nation – it is the uncertainty of what to expect from the surging coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 has upended what has traditionally been smooth back-to-school Augusts of the past. The four school districts in the county – Lee County schools, Tupelo schools, Baldwyn schools and Nettleton schools – have all produced plans of action that include both traditional learning and virtual or distance learning.

The latter will offer students and parents the opportunity to utilize computers for at-home schooling. Since closing in mid-March, schools across the nation have struggled with what to do about educating millions of students. Most schools looked at the remaining two months of the 2019-20 education year as a loss, with eyes focused forward to the upcoming academic year.

Some districts such as San Diego and Los Angeles (the second largest district in the country behind New York City) will not reopen schools for the fall semester but will instead provide all instruction online.

Jackson said the approximately 740 kindergarten through second-grade SPS students will have some changes in their new school year: “The students probably won’t notice them, though,” said Jackson, who oversees a staff of about 100 teachers and support personnel. “We’re going to do everything possible to keep (students) safe.” One significant change, in order to expedite transportation and approved by the Mississippi Department of Education, is shortening the school day by 90 minutes. On the school’s agenda (on every school’s agenda) is increased cleaning to prevent the spread of the virus. The cafeteria will be reduced to 50 percent capacity and classrooms will be smaller than usual. Recesses will be split into four different play areas. Buses and bus routes have been reconfigured to optimize age group seating and expedite pickup and return times. “We’re taking an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Jackson said, adding that he will pitch in with whatever is needed to keep the school humming, from sweeping and mopping to picking up trash.

Tupelo Public School District, with about 7,000 students, has developed and published a 14-page plan for its August 12 reopening date; the plan is accessible at the district website, tupeloschools.com. Of particular interest is that the district will be providing Chromebook computers and chargers for all students. For those who opt for virtual learning, the district is using CANVAS, a “learning management system” in prolific use throughout the United States. The district will hire additional nurses so there is a medical professional on every campus. Temperature screenings will also be part of the new school year. In Nettleton, Superintendent Tim Dickerson said he expects most of the district’s 1,300 kindergarten through 12-graders to return to traditional learning (in-school) on opening day, August 6. While virtual learning online will be offered, Dickerson thinks most parents will opt for getting their youngsters back into schools. “We feel we can more effectively instruct students face-to-face in the classroom,” said Dickerson. “We’re not going to do things perfectly because this is our first go-around with this. If we make a mistake, we back up and try something else.”

Indeed, flexibility is the operative word from all the county’s districts. Superintendents agreed they need to be able to change protocols and procedures as they move forward; and they all expressed the hope that parents will also be flexible to unexpected plan changes.

“Things change, it seems daily,” said Coke Magee, superintendent of the nearly 7,000-student Lee County Schools district. “It’s a pretty challenging time in general. It is creating opportunities to find solutions to problems we’ve never faced.” Magee said a fully documented plan of action will be presented late this week. “We want to be able to teach the children,” Magee continued. “Right now, we’re making changes every day.” He said one positive thing he has noticed is the “willingness to work together” from administrators, faculties, staff and parents.

Baldwyn school board members and administrators met Tuesday to finalize its reopening guidelines; the final version was not available by press time Wednesday. It should be noted that Corinth public school officials announced Tuesday that schools will reopen July 27, likely making it the first public school district in Mississippi to reopen. The 67,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended students return to school because the loss of learning outweighs the risk of contracting coronavirus.

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