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Parents Beg Mississippi County for Online Learning Options

Dozens of frustrated parents and a state representative packed a recent Harrison County, Miss., school board meeting to protest the district’s plan to reopen schools as coronavirus cases in the area climb.

by Isabelle Taft, The Sun Herald / July 21, 2020
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(TNS) — Dozens of frustrated parents and a state representative packed Monday night’s Harrison County school board meeting to protest the district’s plan to reopen schools as coronavirus cases in Harrison County continue to climb.

Last week, the district announced that all students will be required to learn on campus when school starts on Aug. 6, unless they have a medical reason to stay home. Those students will participate in the district’s long-standing “homebound program.”

The board voted on Monday night to expand the program, so that if anyone in a student’s household, and not just the student, has a documented medical concern, the student can participate. Previously, participants in the program had to receive reapproval every 15 days. Monday’s action stretched the reapproval period to nine weeks.

As of Monday afternoon, shortly before the meeting began, nearly 4,000 people had signed a petition urging Harrison County to let any family choose virtual learning. The six speakers on the agenda for the public comment period all pleaded for a virtual option.

State Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes said that she had been inundated by calls from parents, some of whom cried on the phone. Many children in the district she represents, she said, live in households with their grandparents, who are more vulnerable to the virus.

“They will be coming back into their homes, the only person that they have is their grandparent, and you all are sending them back to kill them,” Williams-Barnes said. “You are not giving them any option.”

The meeting adjourned just after 6:30 p.m.

During the public comment period, parent Tori Bishop said that she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition in 2009. She is currently in remission, but feels that sending her children to school would be “a game of roulette” she cannot accept. She has decided to withdraw her children from the district and pay for someone to home school them.

Bishop posed a question directly to Superintendent Roy Gill: If an outbreak forced the closure of schools, what would the district do? Gill said that all teachers are being trained in Schoology, a virtual learning platform.

“We have tried to do everything on the back-end trying to prepare for... we really don’t know what’s liable to come,” Gill said.

‘A huge district’

In an interview with WLOX-TV last week, Gill emphasized that Harrison County’s size — it’s the largest on the Coast — shaped the district’s decision making.

“This is a huge district, and it’s so different than many of your other districts that are smaller,” he said. “When you have right at 15,000 students and 234 buses on the road, you look at what can be manageable.”

But DeSoto County School District, the state’s largest with about twice as many students as Harrison County, is offering virtual learning to any family that doesn’t “yet feel comfortable sending their student(s) back to school in August.” Jackson Public Schools, with about 10,000 more students than Harrison County, is going even farther, “urging all families who are able to select the virtual model to do so.”

According to the website BroadbandNow, which advocates for increased broadband internet access around the country, there’s little difference in internet access between Harrison, DeSoto, and Hinds counties.

Some Harrison County parents say those comparisons show the district could and should offer more options.

Kristin Allen, a parent of three kids at three different Harrison County schools, launched her own survey for parents after the district claimed that nearly 10,000 respondents to their survey had supported the traditional re-opening model. The majority of the approximately 400 parents who have responded to her survey said they will choose to leave the district if distance learning is not offered.

“There are many parents who are now gonna be homeschooling, who have no clue what they’re doing, and these children are not gonna get the education they need, because our school district chose to ... offer nothing,” Allen said in an interview before the meeting.

In an interview after the meeting, Gill said that he didn’t know how the other counties were managing their plans, but that the district had concluded that the virus poses little risk to people under age 19.

“The most effective way to educate a child is in person,” he said. “And when we looked and talked to our medical professionals, everything told to our board, was to go back to traditional.”

Other parents have praised the district for facilitating a return to normal. Amanda Bryant, who has a daughter in middle school and a son in high school, said her kids are eager to get back to school.

“I don’t feel like my kids are being forced to go back,” she said. “My son came to me and said, ‘Please do not home school us.’ He said, ‘If I have to learn virtually, I’m not going to do a good job.’”

In a perfect world, Bryant said, the district would also offer virtual learning for families that feel differently from hers and are wary of returning.

Harrison County’s plan is not unique on the Coast. Other districts that will require families to provide a medical reason, with a note from a physician, to qualify for at-home learning include Long Beach and Ocean Springs.

©2020 The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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