Like most of you, I was ready to see 2020 go away with the hope that 2021 would provide a feeling of safety again and where life could hopefully return to normal. Even with the challenges of 2020, I hope that all of you will reflect and be thankful for the many blessings that you may have received during this trying year. It is certainly human nature to focus on the negative and not remember the positive. 2020 was kind in many ways to my family with my son having graduated from college, I got to celebrate my father’s 95th birthday and my family is healthy. My hope and prayer for you is that you too experienced many blessings in the wake of our worldwide crisis.
As 2021 entered, again like most of you, it is very evident to me that the trials we faced in the prior year are not gone. Simply changing a digit in the calendar year can’t erase our national and worldwide concerns we have on so many fronts. Also with 2021, the field of education is still in a state of transition, and I’d like to focus on just a few questions that we in education have for 2021. The questions, at this point, certainly outnumber our answers!
For K-12 education, the questions are seemingly endless. As a former superintendent, this time of year would be when I would turn my attention with the rest of my team to preparing the budget for the following year, so my first unanswered question would be if the pandemic will have any impact on K-12 funding for the 2021-22 school year. K-12 budgets run from July 1 to June 30 and depend on funding from federal, state and local sources. With the legislature now in session, they are no doubt beginning to work on how much to allocate for the K-12 funding formula (MAEP) for next year.
K-12 education in our state saw a decline of 23,000 students from 2019 to 2020, but I sincerely hope that funding will not be reduced in light of that fact. The reduction in the number of students leads to a second question, and that is “will homeschool students continue to rise, and will many parents still expect the virtual option for their children?” There is truly no way to know if the decline will continue or not, and reducing the funding for our schools on the notion that it will is a risky proposition to say the least. As always, our lawmakers are faced with many tough decisions, and we are blessed in our area to have senators and representatives who will listen to our school leaders and also to the public when it comes to this and other areas impacting education.
Two other major questions for K-12 will be if the pandemic will hasten the retirement for the thousands of teachers in our state who are eligible and if standardized testing will continue in its current form and to what degree. With licensure guideline changes due to the pandemic, there has thankfully been a large increase in traditional and alternate route candidates seeking licensure. Even so, if we see a large exodus of teachers due to the pandemic, the teacher shortage will only be an even bigger issue than it is now.
Higher education, like K-12, faces a large amount of unanswered questions due to the events of this year, but, in my opinion, we in that area of education face two major issues which will impact the future of how colleges and universities conduct business.
The first issue is enrollment. As I noted in an earlier article, this year’s class for first-time freshmen around the country was down significantly over past years. That could rebound next year and could even see an increase due to the fact that so many did not start college this year due to the virus. If it doesn’t, however, that would have major implications for the workforce in the next decade.
The other looming question is somewhat similar to what faces K-12 and that is “how will instruction be delivered?” It was a little easier for colleges to move instruction online that it was for K-12 schools, but many students and even a large percentage of professors are in hopes that face-to-face classes will still be a large part of a college education in the future. The shift to mostly, or all, online courses doesn’t just impact the delivery of the curriculum. If online instruction, especially at the undergraduate level, becomes the norm instead of the exception, college towns will see a decline in population and also a decline in the economic condition of the town and surrounding area. Obviously with Southern Miss and William Carey right here in the Pine Belt, this has major implications for our area.
Many areas of our state and our country may very well fear the answers to all of these questions (and the many I didn’t mention!), but I have confident as a longtime resident of the Pine Belt that we will face these together and come out better than we were before.
I’ve witnessed the resilience of our community through many disasters and other difficult circumstance.
This is one of the many reasons I feel blessed to call the Pine Belt home.
Ben Burnett of Hattiesburg is executive vice president at William Carey University and a former superintendent for Lamar County. Write: email@example.com.