One of the many questions looming for many Yazooans is what will the “new normal” look like as students return to school this Fall. A few of those questions were answered Tuesday night during a virtual community update meeting held by Mississippi Achievement School District superintendent Dr. Jermall Wright.
Utilizing a technology that many of their children will use in schools this fall, about 300 concerned parents and citizens joined in a Zoom conference call with Wright and were given updates regarding the upcoming 2020-2021 school season. Parents were also allowed to ask questions of Wright and voice their concerns via chat communication and the superintendent did an excellent job of answering those questions and informing parents of all recent developments.
With the uncertainty surrounding all schools in Mississippi reopening in a few months, Wright felt it was imperative to have the conference call which allowed stockholders to have a voice in the process moving forward.
“Because of Covid-19 and all of the decisions that we have to make that are drastically changing how we do school, it is important that we get feedback, input and ideas and hear from the people that it’s going to affect,” said Wright. “So before we pick a start date or decide how we’re going to come back, we need to hear from the folks that are going to be impacted.”
While the district is facing several challenges during this unprecedented time, the major concerns include when school will begin, what will the school setup look like and how will infrastructure problems be addressed?
Currently, there are three options for the start date, August 10, August 24, and September 8. Many of those responding seemed to prefer the September 8 start date which would allow the district more time to address the major infrastructure problem. Currently the district’s internet lines are above ground but in order to assure minimal difficulties, those fiber lines need to be underground. This will take time to move the lines and also comes with a hefty price tag.
Estimated costs to put the lines underground are 1.2 million dollars and would take a little over a month to complete. Fortunately, the district has received around 2.4 million (1.3 for Yazoo City and 1.1 for Humphreys County) to address this issue. Having properly functioning internet capabilities will assist the district as a move to distance learning takes place.
“I’ve only been here one year and I can tell you how frustrating it is for me in that one minute you have internet and the next minute you don’t. It seems like it always happens on the days we have testing,” Wright said with a laugh. “Exposed lines are affected by weather, accidents and even squirrels chewing on them so there are constant interruptions. Once those things are rectified it will make our internet a whole lot more stable and we’ll be able to move forward with things that we weren’t able to move forward with before.”
One of the things a stable internet will make possible is distance or virtual learning. Many schools in the state are looking at three models of how to return to school. One is the traditional model that has always existed of physically being in school. Another model, virtual or distance learning, is where the student would distance learn and stay at home 100% of the time.
The third option, which many appeared to prefer, is a hybrid model, which would split distance learning and physical attendance at school. This model could resemble a school week where two days were spent at school and three days were spent at home. That significant amount of time at home would require proper internet access and technology devices available to every student in the district. Classrooms would also have to be retrofitted with smartboards, cameras and other technological devises to allow for steaming content within schools in the region and homes for live and recorded instruction.
While the hybrid or distance learning options are the safest two choices, not only are technological obstacles in place regarding those two, but teacher and staff training as well.
“We are not currently set up to launch virtual learning (100%). Virtual learning is a 3-5 year process to get it done right. Besides infrastructure issues, teacher training has to be done. This district was already facing challenges with teaching in a face-to-face environment. Now the struggle will be even greater in a virtual learning situation.”
Despite the many challenges facing him and the district, Wright remains optimistic about the future of Yazoo’s schools.
“One thing about educators, we learn how to make it happen regardless. So we are going to make it happen regardless,” added Wright. “It’s unfortunate that we’re dealing with Covid-19, but the good part is that it’s forcing us to make some changes and adaptations that we should have done a long time ago so I think in the long run we’re going to be much better for it.”
The next virtual meeting will be held July 9 at 5:30 p.m. During this meeting additional concerns will be discussed including transportation issues, safety protocols and the 2020-2021 school calendar. Wright is inviting the community to again join in on the call and take part in the process.
“I want to thank everyone that joined us on the call,” said Wright. “We’ve had meetings and conferences before and we’ve never had 300 people attend. That shows that people are genuinely concerned. We are committed to provide our students with the best education and service possible.”