Local schools implement at-home learning, feeding plans for current closures

By HASKEL BURNS,

With Gov. Tate Reeves’ recent order to close all public schools throughout Mississippi until April 17 to limit any chance of exposure to the coronavirus, local school officials have put together plans to ensure students still receive vital services, including online at-home learning and meal plans.

Matt Dillon, superintendent of the Petal School District, said his administrative team has been working around the clock to determine a plan for the days to come. The district will implement a summer feeding plan beginning March 23, in which all children 18 years of age or younger will receive free meals during the weekday.

The drive-through meals will be available at Petal Elementary School and Petal Middle School. Individuals can get breakfast from 7-8 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the elementary school, while the middle school will serve breakfast from 8-9 a.m. and lunch from noon-2 p.m.

The meals are free for those younger than 18, while adults can pay $2 for breakfast and $3 for lunch. Exact change is preferred for transactions.

“So even though our doors might be shut for a little bit, we still are going to continue to be a resource to our community,” Dillon said. “We’re going to provide meals, we’re going to continue to provide some type of at-home online learning, so that our students can stay engaged even during this time.

“And what we’re doing is encouraging students to read – we encourage students to check their accounts online. We’re going to have some offline services as well, because we want to make sure that we’re doing the best we can to meet the needs of those students who do not have Internet access. We’re going to ask for some patience, and we’re troubleshooting through some things, but I think we have a really good, detailed plan in place to continue learning, just in a different way.”

Forrest County School District officials also are implementing their online and distance learning capabilities, paying special attention to the lack of Internet access in some parts of the district’s rural areas.

“That’s going to be a concern, but right now we’re in conversations with all cellular companies to see what we can offer from access points,” superintendent Brian Freeman said. “We’ve talked about possibly having buses with Internet capabilities parked throughout the district, and we’re going to open up access at all our campuses where people can pull up in the parking lot and have access to the Internet.”

A daily feeding program will be run by buses, which will deliver food to students, along with any needed learning packets from the district.

“We worry about students having access to get to our campuses – so many of our kids ride the buses that there would be a number of children that would not be able to get to the campus to get those meals,” Freeman said. “So we just feel it’s best to ensure they all get that access, to just run our routes and deliver it.

“I don’t want one child to miss that opportunity just because they couldn’t get (to a campus). Our goal is to run the route once a day, but when we deliver the food, we would actually give them enough for maybe a breakfast the next day and even something for dinner that night.”

Lamar County School District Superintendent Tess Smith said district officials had anticipated the governor’s decision, and have been working toward an online learning platform in addition to learning packets for students who don’t have reliable Internet access. The district also will look at distributing Chromebooks to students, and is rolling out an online resource page for parents who want to enhance learning for their children.

“We know that online or “packet” learning is not ideal. Nothing is normal or ideal at the moment,” Smith said. “As educators, the LCSD feels very strongly about our role in continuing to educating our students as best we can. We understand that some will have easier access than others.

“We are going to do everything that we can to support each and every child considering our current limits. We hope that doing some schoolwork and engaging with teachers online will provide some normalcy and consistency for our students.”

District officials also are awaiting approval from the Mississippi Department of Education to begin a Grab and Go feeding program, which will be set up in each community, including two in Oak Grove. The Grab and Go carlines also will distribute learning packets and other information for parents.

More information on the Grab and Go program will be distributed as it is implemented.

“Please ask people to be patient with us,” Smith said. “Accurate information regarding the LCSD will be delivered directly to parents as needed and shared on our district website and district social media.

“This is new ground for all of us. We will strive to do the best that we can each and every day for everyone.”

Reeves announced the school closures on March 19, when he said the four-week closure period will give officials more time to evaluate further effects of the coronavirus.

“I will tell you, this is not a decision I take lightly – in fact, in my nearly 17 years of serving the public, it is perhaps the hardest decision I have ever had to make,” he said. “The reason it is such a hard decision is because I know that it is difficult for Mississippi families when schools are shut down, and I also know that, honestly, if we have our kids in our classrooms, we’re more likely to get learning accomplished.

“But what I want you to hear me say is this: I made this decision because I believe it’s in the best interest of all of our fellow Mississippians. I also want you to know that this is not the time to take a vacation … this is a time to continue learning.”

Officials will re-evaluate the situation after April 17 to determine the next steps for schools.

“I’ve been attending countless meetings, press conferences – both at the local and state level – to get the up-to-date information and be informed with our decisions,” Dillon said. “We have a plan, and we’ll let our parents and families know of that plan in the days to come.

“I want to commend our administrative team, all those who have spent all those hours away from their families during spring break, to help create a plan and to help create what is hopefully a seamless transition to the best of our abilities to go to some type of at-home learning system in these unique times we’re facing.”

In the meantime, health officials continue to educate the public on ways to help avoid the spread of the virus, including frequent washing of hands and limiting or avoiding social gatherings.