While schools in Northeast Mississippi, including Lee County and Tupelo, remain closed through at least April 17, school districts are working to ensure that children continue learning at home.

On Thursday, Gov. Tate Reeves ordered the state’s public schools closed through mid-April. He had already signed an executive order on March 16 asking schools to begin working with the Mississippi Department of Education to develop distance learning protocols.

Lee County Schools’ distance learning will begin on March 23.

At-home learning packets will be available online at www.leecountyschools.us and printed packets will be available for pick-up on Monday at campuses that are providing grab-and-go lunches for students, including: Shannon Middle and High School, Plantersville Middle School, Verona Elementary School, Mooreville Elementary School, Saltillo High School and Guntown Middle School.

The work will not have to be returned and it will not be graded for LCSD students, according to Lisa Eldridge, chief academic officer for grades K-5.

“It’s something for parents to have access to, to kind of keep their children in the habit of doing something educational while they’re out,” Eldridge said.

District administrators are working with principals to brainstorm ideas to reach students with no internet access or smartphones. Parents who don’t have the ability to pick up packets because of transportation issues can call their school and officials will work with them to get students what they need, Eldridge said.

LCSD curriculum director Shauna Bostick said the packets will consist of review materials for younger students – like counting or reading a book and completing a story map. The assignments will primarily be things the students know how to do, just to keep their skills from lagging.

“We have always experienced a summer slump where students are not involved in the summertime and they show regression,” Bostick said. “So basically this is practice to keep that from happening while students are at home.”

Some teachers like Anna Smithey, an assistant kindergarten teacher at Shannon Primary School, are reaching out to children in innovative ways like using Facebook videos to share encouraging messages or read books to students.

TPSD has plans to officially launch its “Distance Delivery” learning curriculum on March 30.

“Our leadership team and teachers are in the process of establishing distance learning opportunities for all students,” TPSD superintendent Dr. Rob Picou said. “We understand this is a challenging time for everyone. We want to ensure all parents and students that we are thoughtfully planning for learning opportunities.”

TPSD will utilize multiple platforms to deliver content to students from pre-K through 12th grade, including Lexia, iReady, Haiku, Google Classroom, Google Meet and many other free instructional resources.

In the meantime, there are learning resources available online for Tupelo students at www.tupeloschools.com/covid-19-updates.

TPSD has frozen all grading, internal assessment and state testing for the 2019-2020 school year as the district’s administrative team and teachers work out the details of grading and promotion, according to Picou.

Instructional packets will not be passed out at schools because the district doesn’t want to expose any staff or students to potential risks during the emergency school closure. And as the district prepares to roll out its distance learning curriculum, many teachers have taken to posting resources on social media.

“Whatever teachers are doing around the district, it is according to their own private initiatives,” Picou said, regarding supplemental materials distributed before March 30. “We appreciate their efforts. We know our teachers love their students. TPSD is blessed to have the very best teachers in the nation.”

Tupelo’s distance learning plan will seek to meet the needs of all 7,000 students in the district, including special education students, although meeting the needs of every student will be “a highly complex and individualized challenge,” Picou said.

“We are currently in the process of reviewing IEPs (individualized education plan,)” Picou said. “Many of our special educational needs are highly technical and specialized. Our special education department and teachers are working diligently through the details.”

Picou said distance and online learning will not be as simple as handing out Google Chromebooks to students and putting teachers in front of cameras.

“Teachers need to be trained to deliver instruction online and students must be trained to learn online,” Picou said. “There are many extenuating circumstances to consider.”

High school and eighth grade students do have school-issued laptops, but “whether the district will provide laptops to younger students involves a process that has to be carefully planned.”

Brandon Presley, Northern District Public Service Commissioner, said he’s received calls from people with concerns about a lack of internet access for students.

Some worry that students will have to travel to local fast food businesses to use their WiFi to complete online courses.

Heightened concerns about internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic only reinforce Presley’s belief that internet service is as important as electricity in 2020.

“We need to come out of this crisis realizing that and having taken lessons learned from this to fix the problem once and for all,” Presley said. “We simply have got to get every home and every location in the state connected for normal life but also in situations where students are forced to learn online and workers are required to telecommute.”

Internet service providers like C-Spire, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have taken measures to make their services more freely available to individuals during the global pandemic by lifting data caps, vowing to not terminate service for people who can’t pay their bills and keeping hotspots open to the public.

There are still many in Mississippi without access to internet services at their home, and Presley said the state has to get serious about connecting them.

“If we’re going to come out of this and say we’re committed to education, we’re committed to economic development, we’ve got to get committed to connecting folks,” Presley said. “We’ve got a good start in Mississippi, but we’ve got to be more determined than ever to fix this problem. We’re seeing in stark terms how this lack of connectivity is affecting our people.”

State Board of Education chairman Dr. Jason Dean noted on Thursday that while there’s lots of talk of “closing schools” or “suspending schools,” learning for children in Mississippi schools will not cease while the buildings’ doors are closed.

“I know our educators are standing ready to get innovative and figure out how we can continue to deliver the curriculum,” Dean said. “School is not over, it’s just going to be different for at least a month.”

Dean recognized that the state’s distance learning capabilities have been scrutinized and challenged recently, and while there are success stories across many school districts, “we probably also have some blanks to fill in.”

He vowed to establish a chairman’s task force to look into distance learning via public-private partnerships in an effort to better support online learning in the future and begin “filling in some blanks.”

But for now, whether students learn online or through physical packets, schools are finding a way to continue educating Mississippi’s children.

blake.alsup@journalinc.com

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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