District leaders update Rotary

By BY MARK H. STOWERS FOR THE E-T,

The coronavirus has Humpty Dumpty-ied just about every industry.

One of the first that “all the Kings’ horses and all the king’s men” had to figure out how to put back together again is education.

The Indianola Rotary Club got a first-hand view of just how that will be done in the Sunflower County Consolidated School District.

This week’s Zoom meeting of Rotarians included an update from Superintendent Miskia Davis, Personnel Director William Murphy and Data Specialist Dylan Jones as they discussed issues surrounding education in the county in light of COVID-19.

Rotary President Bryan Davis introduced the trio and the superintendent gave the overview of the situation.

She first pointed out that schools were closed during spring break and that coming back to school would be a virtual hurdle to overcome. 

“We were blindsided because we didn’t have time to prepare for anything,” she said. “We knew we had to put a plan together immediately to continue learning with our children.”

But with a lack of technology across the board for students and staff, building a virtual classroom was a virtual nightmare. But it’s one she and her dedicated staff overcame quickly and efficiently.

“About 60-65 percent of our children do not have their own technological device at home. If we start distance learning a lot of our students would be at a disadvantage.  Not only not having a device but many don’t have broadband access or internet access. That was our biggest problem to start with.”

Murphy added that the problem is not just a county problem but one the whole state is working on as well. The educational interruption came just before testing began that would show the students’ progress.

“We were able to do 90% of our benchmark testing but we will have no interim data,” Jones explained. “Now the conversation is what will we do come August? But no one knows what August will look like. Will we be in school? How do we securely administer a universal screener or benchmark? Every time you think you have an answer, something else happens and you have 400 more questions.”

Athletics were mentioned and a meeting of the MHSAA is on the calendar for May 21 to figure out if June 1 is a go date to begin again.

Other educational events were asked about as well.

“MDE has been giving us guidelines but will leave it up to the districts to determine how to proceed with graduation. We are very cautious and are taking the safest route possible,” Superintendent Davis said. “If everyone had to do the same thing, we’d be on the same playing field.”

Davis’ staff decided to have a virtual graduation for SSCSD students.

“We thought about a staggered option but you’d have to sanitize after each one but at the end of the day we wanted to give the students something on their actual graduation day,” she said.

Rotary President Davis brought up the lack of broadband access for students.

“We’re looking to use some of our CARES money to put (internet WIFI) hot spots on all of our campuses,” the superintendent said. “They can drive up to one of our parking lots and have access. If we have to dismiss again in the fall, we’ll be prepared to effectively and efficiently deliver distance learning as opposed to now where we are piecing it together. We want to have a streamlined approach.”

Jones noted that the guidelines are great but with so much disparity among school districts, a more direct imposed guideline would be more efficient for the entire state.

The districts are encouraged to invest in software and apps such as Zoom but if students cannot get access, it would be a waste of time and money, no matter how great the educational curriculum that is created.

Murphy added that some families have one device to spread among multiple family members. Also, teachers do not always have access as well.

“We have to offer internet access to everyone and it has to be free,” Murphy said. “This is the perfect opportunity.”

The superintendent applauded her teachers and administration members as they have worked together to overcome the hurdles in distance learning and learning on the fly how to actually get it all done. President Davis asked about the testing numbers before they were interrupted.

“We had no failing schools and the district was in the best place it had ever been. That is a trend line that has been going on the past three years now. That is a testament to the teachers to maintain consistent growth for three years,” Jones said.

Rotary’s Davis asked about keeping good teachers and admin staff in the district.

“I’m pleased at where we are,” Murphy said. “We got commitments from leaders early. We were probably a week or two ahead of other districts. We were sending out contracts before spring break. Skype interviews and phone interviews are things we had been doing for a few years. For this year, we did not have an overwhelming number of vacancies that we were scrambling to fill.”

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