Mississippi parents grapple with education options for kids

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COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — Christine Lawson had “tossed around the idea of homeschooling” her two sons in the past, but it is the continuing COVID-19 pandemic that has convinced her to do it.

Lawson and her older son, who is 11, both have health conditions that make her wary of sending the boys back to Lowndes County School District in case they unknowingly bring the virus home. Schools across the state and nation closed their doors and implemented online learning from March to May due to the pandemic, and families throughout the Golden Triangle have much to consider when deciding whether to send their children back into school buildings next month.

For some, like Lawson, the deciding factor is the physical health and safety of both the children and adults. For others, it’s the children’s social and emotional health. Some families don’t have the option of staying home and supervising children’s learning. Others believe online learning does not provide sufficient education.

Lawson’s husband works full-time, and she has both a part-time job and a teaching certificate, so she said she understands her family is in a privileged position.

“I don’t know many people that work part-time from home, have a high-risk child and just got a (teaching) degree,” she said. “I feel very sorry for parents, grandparents and kids that are being forced to make much tougher decisions than me.”

LCSD’s board of trustees announced Friday the district will start the school year with a “hybrid” learning method, then return to a fully in-person traditional method by week three. The hybrid method will separate students into two groups that will alternate between in-person and online learning.

Columbus Municipal School District will implement a hybrid schedule -- with students splitting time between in-person and virtual learning -- but allow the option of entirely online learning, while Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District and West Point Consolidated School District will allow families to choose the learning environment they feel is best for their children. WPCSD will offer only traditional and virtual learning for all students, while SOCSD also offers a hybrid option for grades 10-12.

All four districts will implement social distancing, both in buildings and on buses, and require protective face coverings and temperature checks for everyone who enters school buildings.

Even so, parents and teachers both have several unanswered questions about what school will look like, especially since the number of students in each school and classroom is still to be determined.

“The teacher will have to be in the classroom monitoring students pretty much the whole time, but we’re only able to monitor so much,” said Sharicka Gray, a third-grade teacher at Fairview Elementary in CMSD. “We’re going to do the best we can, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Statewide, there are nearly 44,000 cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi and at least 1,358 deaths, as of Mississippi State Department of Health’s records Sunday. With the numbers still increasing, Lorine Clark and Mary Collier said they are concerned about the virus’ potential effect on them as older adults, since both are raising their grandchildren.

Clark and her husband’s four grandchildren attend three CMSD schools, and Collier’s two grandchildren and two foster children attend three SOCSD schools. Both said the continuing increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths led them to continue with virtual learning.

Clark said she believes online learning should be the only option, as it was from March to May when there were far fewer cases and deaths.

“If we did it then, how come we can’t go totally virtual now?” she said. “I’ve signed (my grandchildren) up for virtual. I have three of them that have underlying health conditions, and I don’t really trust sending them out there into an environment where they won’t be protected 100 percent. ... They’re still going to have to do stuff online at home, so why put them at risk two days a week?”

All four of Clark’s grandchildren will learn virtually, and so will Collier’s eleventh-grade granddaughter. But Collier is still deciding whether to sign the other three children up for virtual learning despite her misgivings about reopening school buildings.

“I’m not a teacher, I can’t replace a teacher, (so) I just haven’t made up my mind,” Collier said.

Natasha House, of New Hope, and her two children all have underlying health conditions, so House will sign them up for virtual learning. She would prefer they go to school in person but will not risk their health, especially since they already get sick multiple times a year, she said.

“It’s hard to keep (schools) sanitized, and kids are going to be kids, period,” said House. “You can’t expect, especially the younger ones, to not (be) coughing and sneezing and putting their hands in their mouths.”

Margaret Rollins, a mother of two in Columbus, works from home two days a week and could supervise online learning if schools have to close again, she said, but she and her husband prefer in-person learning for their children.

Their 5-year-old son will attend the private Heritage Academy, and their 3-year-old daughter will attend day care three days a week at Main Street Christian School.

Rollins said she did not want to send her daughter to day care five days a week but did not want to keep her at home either. Her daughter had a liver transplant at 14 months old, and “life’s been pretty normal since,” Rollins said. She said children with liver transplants are not at a higher risk of COVID-19 symptoms than other children, according to her daughter’s doctors.

“I can’t in good conscience keep her home and keep her in a bubble because we fought so hard for her to be able to live,” Rollins said. “We’re scared, we’re terrified of (COVID-19), but we’ve got to let her live, because then what was the point of us fighting so hard to keep her alive? We’re kind of going out on a limb of faith, and we’re just praying and hoping.”

Jennifer Harper’s two teenagers are old enough to stay home alone if need be, but they will both attend West Point High School in person, she said. She homeschooled them for two years in the past, and was dissatisfied with virtual learning by comparison at the end of last school year, mostly due to what she saw as a lack of supervision from teachers.

“I don’t think (my children) got anything out of the last two months of school,” Harper said.

Anita Lindsey Bush, a bus driver and teaching assistant at SOCSD, is helping raise her three grandsons. She shares custody of one of them with his other grandmother, who said she wants him to learn online only.

That would be an option if Bush didn’t have to be at work in person. She won’t be able to leave a seventh-grader at home all day, so he will attend the Partnership Middle School in person, she said.

The clashing of the custody agreement and her grandson’s safety puts Bush “between a rock and a hard place right now,” she said.

Similarly, Sharicka Gray is a single mother, and she said she feels she has no other choice but to bring her 8-year-old daughter into the hybrid learning environment at Fairview.

“If you have younger kids, you really don’t have a choice, and a lot of my teacher friends have said their kids are coming back into the buildings even though a lot of us don’t necessarily agree,” Gray said.

If COVID-19 exposure in her classroom forced her to stay home for 14 days, she wonders if her daughter would have to do the same, and how it might affect her daughter’s classmates and teachers. She also wonders if the district has enough substitute teachers to step in for quarantined teachers, she said.

Lawson said her worries about students and teachers keep her up at night. As a former assistant teacher at Caledonia Elementary, she said she has “watched the flu rip through a classroom despite incredible sanitizing” and worries COVID-19 could be just as bad, if not worse.

“If a kid drops a mask and it’s not monogrammed ... (what if) Suzy Q. picks it up and puts it on?” she said. “If a kid falls down and a teacher needs to come to them, how does that work (from six feet away)?”

Ultimately there is “no right answer” because only individual families know what is best for them alone, Lawson said.

“I’m not living in fear,” she said. “I’m just looking at the inevitable train that’s approaching us, waiting for the impact and to see how much damage it does.”


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