TUPELO • Tupelo Public School District and Lee County School District will apply lessons learned during the spring semester, when schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they work to reopen this fall.
TPSD Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou said Tupelo will offer both in-person and at-home learning for students in the district next semester, depending on individual needs.
“There are going to be parents who for whatever reason choose not to send their students to school,” Picou said. “And we just can’t leave those parents hanging out there with nothing, so we’re going to provide a concurrent model of online and in-class instruction so that anybody who has to keep their students at home will at least have support.”
The district has purchased 3,730 Chromebooks for the fall semester to ensure that every child from K-12 has access to a device, and the district will begin using Canvas, a new learning management system, for assignments. Internet services will be extended into the parking lot of each school in an effort to provide greater support for those lacking reliable WiFi connections at home.
During the spring semester, participation in distance learning started off high but wavered as the school year came to a close, Picou said. Using a program like Canvas will offer a more structured routine and hold students accountable while learning from home.
Textbooks and workbooks are also being purchased so that every student has access to instructional materials beyond a laptop at home, if needed.
When in-person classes return in August, several changes will be made to the way face-to-face instruction occurs. Picou said the district has already decided on several additions and measures that will help to keep students safe.
Classroom desks will be arranged in rows facing the front of the classroom rather than in small groups clustered together as they have been in the past. Lunches will be delivered and served in classrooms rather than students going to the lunchroom to eat.
All absorbent furniture, including wood furniture, will be removed and replaced to make disinfecting easier. More hand sanitizer stations will be placed throughout schools, thermal scanners will be added at front entrances and touchless water fountains and toilets will be installed.
Six additional nurses will be hired so that each school will have its own full-time nurse, and nursing stations will be redesigned so that they each have an isolation room in case a child is sick.
“We’re making those changes, we’re making those decisions,” Picou said. “Sometimes they’re slow because you make it and find out more information and you have to adjust. But that’s the nature of a pandemic, the nature of the unknown.”
Hearing parental feedback on Tupelo’s plans is important, so a 140-member parental advisory committee consisting of 10 parents from each school in the district has been assembled to continue workshopping ideas for the fall 2020 semester. The district also received 3,501 responses to an online parent survey conducted last week.
TPSD’s blueprint for the spring semester will be released for students and parents on June 15, Picou said. It will include information on the planned concurrent model, instructional materials students will bring home if need be, contingency plans in case schools shut down again this fall, safety protocols at schools, social distancing measures and lunch details.
“This is not anything any of us welcomed or wanted, but the reality is it provides us an opportunity to see how we can do things differently and how we can continue to meet the needs of our community and our students with our great partners here in Tupelo,” Picou said. “If there was ever a time when the One Single Heartbeat was important, when good people surround a common vision and do whatever is necessary, this would be that time.”
LCSD Superintendent Coke Magee said his district’s biggest success during the spring semester was listening, communicating and being responsive to the communities it serves.
“Whether it was the school lunches, coursework, paper/pencil packets, our teachers and our administrators got to work and found ways to continue to provide those resources to our communities,” Magee said.
Magee said he’s most proud of the district’s meal distribution program, which has fed 94,076 meals to local children as of May 29, according to LCSD Child Nutrition Director Valerie Weivoda.
Meal distribution began on March 23 and will continue through Monday, June 29, at Guntown Middle School, Saltillo High School, Mooreville Elementary School, Shannon High/Middle School and Verona Elementary School from 10 a.m. to noon every Monday and Wednesday.
“We can’t wait to hit 100,000 and hope to do that soon,” Weivoda said. “We are grateful to the individuals and businesses that have donated money and various items to our department to help our cause.”
Anyone who would like to help the district provide meals for students can contact Weivoda via email at email@example.com.
Looking toward next semester, Magee said “what we learned through this process that we’re going to be able to put into place in the future is probably just as important as what our students and teachers were able to do right now.”
As far as options being considered for in-person classes this fall, “nothing’s off the table,” Magee said. But he does intend to have students return to the classroom.
He said the district is working to provide meaningful professional development for teachers and looking at ways to adjust curriculum for the 2020-21 school year so material that might have been missed when schools closed during the last nine weeks of the semester can be reintroduced.
The calendar for the upcoming year will also be re-evaluated to see if changes to school start dates could “have a meaningful impact.” Any such changes would be approved during LCSD Board of Trustees’ monthly board meeting in mid-June.
“We will be communicating out to people as soon as we know what direction those things will take,” Magee said. “Still nothing concrete yet, but we’re looking at every viable option.”
One thing that COVID-19 has not affected, however, is planning for LCSD’s new career technical center. A pre-bid meeting was held on Wednesday with contractors who had expressed interest in the project. Bids will open on June 4, Magee said, and construction is scheduled to begin the first week of July and the project should be completed in July 2021 so the center can open in August 2021.