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Majority of Mississippi educators support delaying school start or virtual learning, new survey shows

As educators and their supporters begin to protest across the state urging for a delayed start to the upcoming school year, a new survey of nearly 2,400 teachers in Mississippi shows most do not want to return to traditional in-person schooling.

The survey released Monday was administered by the Mississippi Association of Educators, the state’s teachers union. Of the 2,391 respondents from every county in the state, 78% were teachers, 5% were teaching assistants, and the remaining respondents identified themselves as administration, counselors or other.

When asked about their thoughts on reopening schools, 86% of respondents expressed negative sentiments “advocating for schools to re-open at a later date and/or virtual learning.” They also cited concerns for their health as well as the health of their students.

Though the survey report did not identify teachers by name, many said they were concerned about their district’s ability to get proper safety measures and technology in place by the start of school. Some said they wanted more guidance around how to teach and interact with students now that so much has changed.

“I teach severe/profound special education,” a teacher from Grenada County said. “I have students who have sensory issues and will not tolerate a mask all day. I need help with that.”

“I’m not interested in learning a new normal. I’m not interested in doing double the work for the small amount of money we make,” said a teacher from Pearl River County. “Nothing is possible without teachers yet we’re expected to be miracle workers.”

About 7% of respondents said they support “reopening schools without modifications to the traditional school model, citing students’ mental health and security as a concern” as well as a need for normalcy, according to the survey report. A separate 7% said they support the traditional school model, but with modifications like mask mandates and social distancing guidelines.

“I think we need to be very clear that if we delay school opening for a couple of weeks, it doesn’t mean things are going to be better,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said at a press conference last week. “It’s probably going to be bad for a long time.”

Dobbs said though he wasn’t sure that he had the perfect answer himself, there is no way to open schools safely.

“…Just from a pure infection control perspective, it makes perfect sense to not open schools at all because there will be more cases of coronavirus when we open schools …But schools are important. Our kids have to get educated,” Dobbs said.

In a joint statement over the weekend, the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Mississippi State Medical Association said “schools should make every effort to open in-person school safely this fall, while also considering the earlier White House guidance that cases in a given region or state should be on a downward trajectory before reopening.”

The groups also advocate for a delayed reopening until at least Sept. 1, a statewide mask mandate, and mandatory masks for everyone in school buildings, no matter their age. Additionally, all kids should have the option to choose virtual learning for any reason and districts should consider all possible ways to continue in-person learning for students who may not benefit from virtual learning.

The Mississippi Department of Education has left the decision of how and when to open up to each individual school district, though the agency did offer three options to do so: virtual, in-person or a mixture of the two. Districts must decide by Friday.

The survey asked respondents which method they prefer. The answers were split: 42% prefer a hybrid model, 40 percent prefer virtual, and 18 percent prefer traditional, in-person schooling.

District plans are revised daily as the number of cases and deaths change rapidly. The Madison County School District, for example, was originally scheduled to open next month but recently announced it was delaying the start of schools to Sept. 3 because of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The Jackson Public School District, the second-largest in the state, announced this month that it would reopen with a hybrid of virtual and traditional classes. Eight days later, the department announced it was going entirely virtual for the fall semester because of the “exponential increase of COVID-19 cases in Mississippi and in Hinds County, and, more specifically, the increased pediatric cases of COVID-19.”

MAE President Erica Jones, in a letter to state officials, requested school buildings remain closed until the average daily infection rate of Mississippians tested falls below 5 percent.

“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,” Jones said. “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.”

The MAE recommended schools meet the following criteria before students return to buildings:

Masks are required and teachers have access to proper protective gear, including face shields so students can still see their teacher’s nonverbal facial cues
Develop plans on how to take all students’ temperatures before they board the school bus or enter the building, as well as access to COVID-19 testing for students and educators who exhibit symptoms
Ensure schools have access to adequate cleaning supplies and custodial staff so that buildings are cleaned and disinfected regularly
The organization asked state leaders to waive state testing. An overwhelming majority, 95 percent, said state testing should be suspended for the 2020-21 school year because of the pandemic. The Mississippi State Board of Education has not taken that step yet, but state testing was suspended for the previous school year, when COVID-19 first hit the state.

“There is no place that educators would rather be than back in our classrooms. We miss our students,” Jones said. “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.”

Article written by Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today’s deputy managing editor.