After two years of pandemic-related interruptions, students in Jackson, Miss., schools have once again returned to remote learning, but this time it was a failure of the aging local water system—not COVID-19—that forced the capital city into crisis mode.
The school system is one of many across the country that have started the school year with emergencies like failures of power grids, heat waves, and flooding that have tested the resolve of leaders and students who crave a return to normalcy.
That’s once again put a spotlight on emergency preparedness on everything from remote schooling plans and data security to protecting the social and emotional needs of students and staff.
In Jackson, the crisis came after heavy rainfall flooded the Pearl River and overwhelmed the city’s water treatment plant, causing water pressure to plunge in homes and businesses.
During some previous water emergencies, district administrators have managed to keep school buildings open, even parking fire department tanker trucks outside the most heavily affected schools so staff could fill buckets to manually flush toilets, Superintendent Errick L. Greene said.
But by Aug. 29, it became clear that such Band-Aid solutions would be unsustainable this time. Aware of the limitations of online learning, Greene made the tough choice to direct Jackson’s 20,000 students to stay home and learn online.
“We heard very loudly and clearly during the pandemic that, while there were some scholars who appreciated the opportunity to learn virtually, the majority struggled,” he said. “As this week unfolded, I recalled that message from parents. There are certainly a range of emotions.”
The school district quickly stood up a remote learning plan it had developed during the pandemic, dispatching staff members to stay after hours and distribute computers to students who needed them. And Greene recorded a video message for families, acknowledging the strain of the moment.
“The water treatment system is super fragile and it only takes a feather—methaphorically speaking—to fail,” Greene told Education Week. “It’s years of underinvestment. At some point, you’ve got to pay for that.”
Schools face crises related to weather, infrastructure
Even as the 2022-23 school year is just starting in most districts, administrators around the country have already faced various crises related to weather, facilities, and environmental concerns. The situations have forced them to exercise the muscle memory they developed during the pandemic to adjust their operations.
Climate scientists have suggested such interruptions will become more frequent as climate change spurs new weather extremes.
In California, schools have moved recess inside in recent weeks to cope with triple-digit temperatures. The state’s education department is prepared to provide schools with attendance waivers should the prolonged heat wave lead to power failures that force them to close, an agency spokesperson said.
Philadelphia announced early dismissals at more than 100 schools Aug. 31 when air conditioning couldn’t keep up with the heat. Such closures have frustrated parents in cities around the country, who say COVID-19 relief aid should be used to address such facilities concerns.
And, like Jackson, some districts face prolonged catastrophes.
In eastern Kentucky, more than 7,600 students remained out of school Friday after late July flooding caused massive property damage and 39 confirmed deaths.
“The photographs and videos people have seen do not do justice to the level of damage in your communities,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass told affected superintendents at a virtual meeting Sept. 1 after he toured some of the damage. “In every community we saw, the amount of progress that we’ve seen toward restoring school services has also been extraordinary.”
Some districts were still working to locate students during a visit by state officials. Some have opened by combining students from multiple severely damaged schools into single buildings, the state education agency reported in a news release. And some districts don’t plan to open until late September.
The state’s legislature has provided $40 million in emergency funding for school clean-up and emergency supports.
Schools navigate ongoing uncertainty
In Jackson, where residents waited in long lines for bottled water this week, students also face continuing uncertainty, said Greene, the superintendent.
District administrators will monitor conditions over Labor Day weekend and plan an in-person return to school as soon as it’s possible, he said.
“I’m still hopeful that we will get fairly quickly beyond this and we will be able to string together some solid days of learning soon,” Greene said.
In the meantime, Greene and superintendents facing school closures in other parts of the country say pandemic conditions gave their schools some tools and strategies that are helpful now.
Jackson built up a districtwide 1-to-1 computing strategy, for example, purchasing devices like Chromebooks and online materials’ licenses that will allow teachers to carry out virtual learning during the water crisis.
On a smaller scale, districts around the country have said similar strategies will allow them to avoid class interruptions during snow days, when students can’t safely make their way to schools.
Jackson’s school nutrition staff also shifted back to pandemic mode this week, offering grab-and-go meals at school sites throughout the city.
Advice from leaders who’ve been there
Here’s some advice from Greene and other district leaders about preparing for and coping with crises that threaten school operations.
Rely on neighboring school systems: Greene said he’s had a steady stream of messages from administrators in nearby districts, offering support. Jackson plans to borrow some of their facilities so that teams can relocate athletic events and maintain their season schedules.
Keep on eye on everyone’s social and emotional needs: School leaders said it’s important to acknowledge and respond to the stress and emotions of students, families, and staff.
Jackson has a “warmline,” a telephone number staffed by trained volunteers who take calls from parents and staff who may feel isolated during remote learning or need a referral for services.
Recognize schools’ roles as community conveners: Kentucky school leaders told Glass they are eager to welcome displaced students back because, even if those students don’t have a permanent home, educators can help connect them to needed community resources.
Similarly, school leaders in states such as Colorado and Florida, prone to disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, have said it’s importantto regularly update facilities and volunteer plans in advance and be ready to offer school buildings as shelter if necessary.
Back up key data: Some Kentucky schools lost student data and learning materials in the floods, leaders told NBC News. Some said they’d backed up data on physical hard drives, rather than in the cloud. They had anticipated a possible cyberattack, but they did not expect to lose that equipment in a natural disaster.
The Houston Independent School District, which has coped with multiple bouts of flooding and hurricanes in recent years, backs up key software and data to the cloud, Chief Information Officer Lenny Schad told Education Week in 2017. That includes student data and learning software, as well as administrative information necessary to continue cutting checks and paying employees, even if buildings are inaccessible.
Secure crucial documents: It’s important for district leaders to locate and secure copies maps and facilities plans before a disaster, district leaders said. That can help administrators file insurance claims and quickly shift contingency plans if some buildings cannot re-open quickly.
Communicate, communicate, communicate: Whether it’s a few days of heat-related closures or rebuilding an entire school following a historic disaster, families need consistent, transparent information about how and why school leaders are making decisions, administrators said.
For Greene, that means regular updates on the district’s website and in video messages to parents. And it means explaining the logistical challenges that make it difficult to operate schools, even as households in some Jackson neighborhoods regain water pressure.
“Unfortunately, but thankfully, we have [developed] a bit of muscle for this,” Greene said.