Columbia schools make plans for likely closure; official decision expected from governor Thursday

By CHARLIE SMITH,

The Columbia school board discussed plans today during a special meeting for a likely school closure in response to the coronavirus pandemic, although an official decision regarding shutting down schools remains pending an announcement from Gov. Tate Reeves Thursday.

The board approved at Superintendent Jason Harris’s recommendation continuing to serve meals if school is closed.

Harris said the state superintendent released an email today that says the governor will make an announcement tomorrow regarding school closure. The announcement is set for 10 a.m. Thursday.

The school board held a special meeting at 5 p.m. today via video conference to make preparations.

Harris said they are anticipating a mandated closure from Reeves and that he’s heard rumors of it being through the end of March or a full month. He said he expects at minimum two weeks.

Harris said they will have digital learning and paper and pencil, too, that will be ready to go by March 30. The district a few years ago completed a “one-to-one” initiative that provided every student with a laptop computer.

Board Member Rene Dungan commended Harris for starting that program, and he said he never anticipated it would be used in this way.

The district is on spring break this week but remains in limbo for the future as the outbreak continues. No cases have been identified in Marion County, although Mississippi has 34 confirmed cases as of today.

The Legislature passed a law today, Harris said, to allow districts to pay all certified and non-certified staff during anticipated closures from the outbreak.

Also, the state superintendent has asked the Legislature for all testing requirements to be waived for this year, including graduation requirements and the third-grade gate.

Harris said all of the district’s buildings are being cleaned extensively again during spring break and that staff will have set times to come in and gather materials.

They anticipate remote instruction starting on March 30.

The eighth grade through 12th grade students already have their computers, and the younger students would have to check out their laptops from the schools.

The district is planning to provide paper copies to students who don’t have internet access. Harris said when the district polled about two years ago that 75% of families said they did have internet access.

Harris said the district has taught students well thus far and would have started reviewing for tests soon. He said now their goal is to stop a “summer slide” during the anticipated closure.

He noted C Spire and others have said are waiving data charges, and he is hoping other cellphone providers do the same.

Harris said assignments will be given if there is an extended closure and it will be “work-at-your-own-pace assignments.”

The district is working on plans to have teachers who are points of contacts with specific students to monitor they are getting work done and asking what they need.

For students in kindergarten through second grade, assignments could be picked up at a drive through. The district has talked about bus drivers delivering assignments that are not picked up but that’s on a wait-and-see basis, Harris said, because the district has to worry about protecting staff from coronavirus exposure.

Harris noted that Kansas has already closed schools for the entire year and that districts across Mississippi have been doing different things, causing confusion. School board members said they feel like a statewide decision is needed from the governor.

“There are just so many unknowns. This is just uncharted territory for everyone,” Harris said.

Harris said 75% of the students receive free or reduced lunch, and the school board approved operating the program from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday until further notice at Columbia Primary and Columbia High schools.

The district will serve free “grab and go” meals for children ages 0 to 18. No ID is required, but children must be present. The children don’t have to be school district students.

Harris said they’re prepared to start Monday.

There will be drive up and walk up service. He said they chose those two schools because they have bus lanes that make it easy to pull up.

Lunch will be served for immediate consumption and then breakfast will also be given at the same time for the next day.

“Instead of doing breakfast and then doing lunch, this will be a one-time contact,” Harris said.

The board also hired cafeteria workers to prepare the meals and authorized Harris to make emergency purchases, if needed.

Harris said the administrative staff has been meeting frequently to make plans this week and praised their “awesome” work. The board thanked them for working through their spring break.

Harris called the situation “unprecedented” and said he hopes they don’t have to go through this again during their lifetimes.

Harris said they would like to have events for seniors like prom and commencement ceremonies but that it’s speculation now about what will happen and that it’s premature to say anything until the district receives further guidance.

He said he anticipates athletics not returning for the rest of the school year.

“This senior class is going to go down in history for the things that happened,” Harris said.