JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A year into the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, many decision-makers in Mississippi are looking back at how far we’ve come in hopes of leaping into the future.
One of the biggest wounds in the COVID-19 pandemic has been the damage the virus did to the state’s already battered school system.
After rallies to delay the start of school, teachers and students were jolted into last year after a whirlwind of a summer where cases of the virus skyrocketed.
“He’s in kindergarten, and the packet was this thick, and they want you to turn it in within a week,” Cangela Mays told WLBT September 30 about her son, who hadn’t received a laptop six weeks into the school year.
Pencil-paper packets were delivered by bus, parents grappled with going to work to support their families or staying at home to ensure their child’s education as distance learning became household words.
“The biggest challenge has been the varying needs of schools and communities brought on by COVID caseloads,” said Dr. Nathan Oakley, chief academic officer, Miss. Department of Education.
Many overworked, underpaid teachers had to manage ongoing professional development to figure out how to educate kids in a virtual setting while also still teaching some students in-person.
Life experience kicked in as teachers got creative to survive.
“It was so hard trying to get my students to keep their face masks on because they had so many questions,” Gary Road Elementary veteran teacher Roshunda Black-Mitchell told WLBT on December 24. “I explained to them that COVID is a germ and Mr. COVID is a germ we can’t touch.”
Test scores have not yet poured in from this school year, but the average ACT score for juniors increased from 17.6 in 2019 to 17.7 in 2020, but ACT scores for Mississippi public school students who graduated in 2020 decreased slightly from 18.1 to 17.9.
Now, everyone is eager to move forward.
“The last year has been full of unknowns, from week to week needs have changed, caseloads have changed as we’ve heard feedback from parents, students, and teachers across the state this year,” Dr. Nathan Oakley said. “We’ve spent a lot of time in group meetings virtually that has provided a lot of guidance to us. It’s kind of a chapter in a book that I never thought I’d see or have to write, but we are excited about the future.”
A big part of that future includes a historic $1.9T COVID-19 bill passed by Congress that will funnel about $130 billion to schools for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
In Mississippi, the state’s top education leaders said funds will be allocated with a formula similar to what’s used for title one allocations, meaning the money will go to school districts with higher poverty rates, the student population will be considered, and districts have some discretion over funds.
“We have particularly encouraged them to look closely at students who are struggling whether that’s with English, math, reading or other areas, to consider social-emotional needs, to consider telehealth services that may be necessary to address students need beyond just the academic side but all the other factors that can impact learning,” Dr. Nathan Oakley said.
Oakley said a key focus area will be helping students who fell behind during the pandemic, including after-school programs, intervention during the day, and summer learning opportunities.
Oakley foresees a normal, full-length, in-person school year come August based on the optimism he has for educators.
“Mississippi’s educators are incredibly committed, creative, and resilient,” Oakley said. “They have found remarkable ways to continue teaching and learning in spite of a global pandemic.”