From MAE President Erica Jones: Reopening Schools this Fall

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges into every facet of our lives. It has exposed profound inequities in our public school system and created serious, complicated problems for our students, educators, and communities to navigate. While it has been our hope that school buildings could open in a few short weeks, it has become abundantly clear that we are in no position to proceed as planned. We cannot, and should not, rush back into buildings simply to comply with the current calendared start date when students’ and educators’ health and safety are at risk.

Educators are fearful for our health and the health of our students. We are worried about our families and our students’ families. With the number of COVID cases growing daily, the absence of leadership from our state’s top education officials has been disheartening to say the least. We are in the midst of a statewide crisis, and while we would typically defer to a school district knowing their communities’ specific needs better than anyone, this is markedly different. It is now time for the Department of Education to step in and provide meaningful, standardized guidance.

Though not specifically developed as a metric for schools, epidemiologists agree that positive tests should come back at a rate of less than 5 percent before a region reopens. Mississippi has not yet reached that threshold, and we ask that school buildings remain closed until the average daily infection rate of Mississippians tested falls below 5 percent.

As we look to health care professionals for guidance on when it is safe to return to our buildings, it is imperative that the state takes its cues on how we return to school by listening to the people who know our schools best: educators.

That’s why we propose that prior to reopening buildings and physically returning to school, the following criteria be met:

  1. Mandated mask use in all schools.
  2. All students, educators, and volunteers have access to proper training and protective gear.
  3. Schools have the cleaning supplies and custodial staff required to ensure buildings are being cleaned and disinfected according to CDC guidelines.
  4. All education support professionals, such as maintenance workers and custodial staff, have resources and training needed to maintain clean campuses and schools. 
  5. A plan to have students’ temperatures taken before entering the building or boarding a bus must be developed.
  6. Access to testing for students and educators who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

In the event that a full physical return to school buildings is deemed unsafe and we look to distance learning or a hybrid model that utilizes distance learning and a limited return to school buildings, the following considerations should be a priority for district and state leadership and policymakers:

  1. Internet access and devices such as laptops are provided equitably for every educator and student household.
  2. Materials, such as packets or books, are provided as alternatives to digital resources to ensure all students have access to high-quality instructional content.
  3. All families receive appropriate lessons for students to complete at home based on grade level and ability (inclusive of physical education, music, arts, and other enrichment areas) as well as information on how to facilitate student learning, including online tutorials and access to educators or experts who can assist them.
  4. Schools engage all educators in crafting and communicating distance and digital learning plans.
  5. Schools communicate with all educators and the families of students with specials needs related to implementing plans for the continuation of services.
  6. Schools communicate procedures with all students—particularly those whose educational progress, such as third grade promotion or high school graduation—that has the potential to be particularly disrupted by extended school closures.
  7. Students have safe and reliable access to school counselors and social workers and can safely report abuse and bullying in the pandemic crisis.
  8. All students and families have safe, reliable, and affordable access to community healthcare and equitable access to supplemental assistance programs for food, transportation, and housing.
  9. All students have a timely, secure, and confidential way to ask educators or other trusted persons for help if their health, safety, or well-being is under threat—including those who may not have access to the internet.
  10. Schools provide clear communication with all educators regarding closures and work expectations on a regular basis and provide training on effective techniques to prepare and deliver successful distance and digital learning.
  11. All educators have a secure way to submit feedback and grade reports to all students and families without compromising student data privacy or information security—including those who may not have access to the internet.
  12. All educators are consulted on how to assign grades, keeping in mind factors such as student access to digital and/or alternative educational content or other extenuating personal circumstances.

Finally, we ask that state assessment and accountability requirements for the 2020-2021 academic year be waived by the State Board of Education. After enduring an unsettled spring and summer and facing the possibility of even more disruptions to their lives inside and outside the classroom, students and educators should be focused on remediation and mental health upon returning to school. This is no time to put unnecessary stressors on our kids and their teachers.

There is no place that educators would rather be than back in our classrooms. We miss our students. We miss the buzz of our schools’ hallways. We miss our dedicated colleagues. We even miss grading papers. Mississippi’s educators care deeply about the work we do and the students we serve, and keeping our communities safe, happy, and healthy is of the utmost importance to all of us. Please understand that we do not take this situation or this letter’s requests lightly. We stand ready to provide additional feedback on how to proceed.

Sincerely,

Erica Jones, President