Less than two weeks before several northeast Mississippi school districts were set to open their campuses, one district has pulled the plug on that because of positive coronavirus test results.
The Booneville School District decided last night to change the plan and opt for mostly virtual instruction. “We’re going to start off online,” said Booneville School District Superintendent Todd English. “We haven’t announced it yet, but we’ve got things in place for that to happen.”
English said it would be a “hybrid” type of attendance in that some students with special needs will attend in person and buses would drop off lunches and maybe books to students at home.
More than one teacher has been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus in recent days, according to English. “There are several teachers with direct. six-feet-or-less-for-15-minutes-or-more-without-a-mask exposure to someone who’s tested positive,” English said. “If we started out that way, I would have two of 13 grades already at home because I don’t have enough teachers to handle the student load. Any plan that we do is only as strong as our weakest link.”
Starting the school year with more than one teacher with exposure could result in a snowball of positive tests, which could lead to a shortage of teachers. “The limiting factor for most districts will be the substitute teacher,” English said. “Several districts are increasing what they pay a substitute per day, but they’re not having any luck getting additional substitutes. There’s not really any way to plan for that.”
Like many of the districts in the area, the Booneville District has set up open campus with as much social distancing as possible and lots of time outside, including conducting some classes outside. English said that local residents may have become complacent recently and overdone it over the Fourth of July weekend and the result was a spike of sorts of the coronavirus.
“The line is going up here because of the Fourth of July, and it’s been beautiful weather and people were tired of being cooped up,” English said. It’s a perfect storm.”
The district will go online until Labor Day and then re-evaluate. Because the district area is relatively small and rural, the opportunities for congregation, such as church and other activities, is great and that increases the chances of spreading the virus.
“I honestly think it’s going to spread in the rural schools for that reason more than the larger schools because of what goes on after hours,” English said. “We haven’t even put our 1,300 students in school buildings yet and we’re having to go through this protocol.”
Nick Heywood, associate vice president of Guidepost Solutions, a security consulting firm, said the current situation regarding whether to open school campuses calls for how to structure policy procedures and getting buy-in from the community, and to make sure the procedures and policies are transparent.
Are students going to be tested as they arrive or before they go into the school? In recent years, some schools have developed protocols that funnel students in through one entrance for safety reasons. That’s not necessarily the best way to handle health concerns regarding a contagious virus.
“From a safety perspective, what is the architecture of the building, for example,” Heywood said. “Making sure that those entry points are controlled and staffed so you maintain social distancing needs.”
Heywood said perhaps the best scenario is some sort of hybrid, where some students are in class while others are at home, staggering attendance.
In Mississippi, Booneville’s neighboring districts are perhaps less ready for distance learning than Booneville, which was ready to jump into it when the call was made last night.
English said the state recently received $200 million of CARES Act money for districts, a
nd Booneville has already deployed its resources. “Other districts aren’t going virtual right now because they are still waiting on their devices to come in. We already have them,” he said. “It’s a bottleneck on the supply chain.”