As teachers in rural Mississippi, we watch the COVID-19 school closures with a nagging awareness that inequities in education are nothing new — and a clear understanding of how schools weather crises through the strength of their communities.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

Bonnie: “We’re in the country-country, Ms. Miller, we really have nothing to worry about,” the lead teacher on my hall reassured me. Characteristically, she sought to allay any fears about the spreading coronavirus, even as she delivered the administration’s warning to prepare paper packets in case of school closures. Our first grade classroom’s reward for completing benchmark exams was to watch “The Cat in the Hat,” and they were loving it. Even when the warning about closures interrupted our movie for a moment, I decided not to worry. Instead, I leaned into the delight of dance parties on the way to the buses and children hugging me so tightly I wasn’t sure they would ever let go. Now, sitting here in my home and knowing schools are closed for the rest of the school year, I wish they never had. 

Abi: With a festive dismissal on Friday, I sent my restless fourth graders off to break. I tried to shrug off Mrs. Jackson’s jaded words: “I’m just saying, Ms. McDougal, this quarter’s been good, but it’s too good. It ain’t gonna last. You watch — when we get back from spring break, there’s change coming. I can feel it.”

On the chalk-decorated sidewalk, the principal stopped me and two other teachers. “When — not if — a coronavirus wave hits us, we may have to close school for a couple weeks. We’ll be too close to state testing to afford losing that time,” he added, “so can you pull some resources to send packets home with kids?” 

We nodded. Easy.

Bonnie: My first thoughts on this whole “distance learning” idea included a string of questions: How can children learn from a distance without internet access? What about the kids whose parents are still working? And for those already behind, how will they ever catch up after this? Educators have always faced systemic challenges in providing all students with high-quality learning. As schools began contemplating distance learning plans, the radical differences from student to student — and community to community — became jarringly magnified. The inequities that have always been present have now been shoved into the limelight by COVID-19.

Abi: With the end of spring break came the email announcing school closures. Within a few days, the school addressed the first priority in a district that qualifies for 100% free and reduced-price meals: setting up sites for families to pick up food. Several days later, we received confirmation that state testing had been canceled and would not factor into district accountability ratings. Our school’s funding for the upcoming school year would continue to be determined by last year’s accountability rating. After a year’s hard work toward boosting student learning, that was disappointing, especially given that recent data had shown headway toward increasing our score. Nevertheless, we tasted newfound freedom to think about helping students actually learn for their own benefit.

Bonnie: During the first week without school, I received many phone calls and messages from parents asking about policies not yet developed, requesting resources I was still working to research and even asking if they could drop their children off with me for one-on-one teaching. While teachers across the country constantly posted about their creative makeshift Zoom classes and assignments, we were still trying to assess our district’s needs and determine who had a computer at home, or even reliable access to the internet, especially in the most rural areas. I felt inadequate. To overcome the feeling of helplessness, I started calling parents, making sure I had reached everyone and tracking who had remote access. Of my 27 students, 12 had access to a laptop or tablet, eight could access the internet only through a parent’s cell phone and seven had no chance at getting online. This information influenced all my decisions moving forward.

Abi: As parents adapted to the shutdown, my phone calls to 62 families of students revealed how widely reactions to the new virus varied. That is the nature of schools: They serve as a cross section of communities, the common ground every family depends on for daily structure. 

I repeatedly told families, “Some parents beg me to send work to keep their child busy, but others say, ‘Please, don’t give us one more thing to worry about right now’” — at that point I’d often hear a genuine chuckle. I continued, “So I’m just saying, look, here are some great resources that can help your child stay on top of reading at home, but please don’t stress on it.” Over and over, I could hear their responses relax at the other end of the line.

Bonnie: Two weeks after spring break, we received a distance learning plan from our school, which included assigning weekly virtual activities and holding online office hours. I knew immediately that would not be enough, but I also did not want to overwhelm parents with complicated instructional methods. As I began brainstorming, I realized the plan did not mention families without internet access. How could I just accept that some of my kids would receive an education and others would not receive any?

In an attempt to address some of these disparities, my teaching assistant and I decided to put together and drop off care packages for our students. Parents had been asking for materials to help support their children’s learning, so this action plan seemed like the best fit. We quickly crammed bags with activity worksheets, books, school supplies, and even snacks and candy to keep their spirits up. These packages would at least hold them over for a few weeks.  While COVID-19 hadn’t made its way through our part of Mississippi quite yet, we knew there would still be risk involved no matter the safety precautions we took. Ultimately, we decided this was something many of our kids needed at the time, and if parents felt safe about it, we were willing to move forward.

Abi: On April 1, like a nasty April Fools’ joke, the district suspended meal pickup for students in our school. 

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” my principal commented on the phone. He never had an easy job; he’s the fourth principal in four years. With the pandemic, impossible expectations for school leaders only increased. He explained that a neighboring district had an employee and a volunteer working the food line both test positive for COVID-19, and surrounding districts took notice. “Pick your poison, I guess,” he concluded. We’ve traded one health crisis for another.

As parents and students kept asking when school would be back in session, the return date kept getting delayed. Some days, my phone buzzed indifferently with messages I didn’t know how to answer. A mother told me that to juggle her work schedule, she needed to send her children out of state. She wanted to make sure her son’s grade wouldn’t suffer if he left. “I’m so sorry you’re having to face that choice right now,” I texted back. “Tell me if I can do anything to help make the schoolwork easier.” My response felt lame. It was. 

Since our virtual class is optional and we’re free from standardized testing, I explore new virtual content to engage students — livestream performances, science articles on insects, historical fiction audiobooks. Amid a wave of online support for education, a wealth of digital resources have suddenly become free for the remainder of the school year. 

One day, at the end of my office hour, several fourth graders remained on Zoom analyzing a graph modeling the benefits of social distancing. “It’s time to go,” I told them, “but I’ll stay on another 10 minutes if you want to dig into the advanced reasons why experts say we need to keep schools closed.” For the next 15 minutes, my five students stayed online helping each other understand the graph, fully engaged. 

Bonnie: A few weeks later, after adjusting the district learning plan and delivering paper packets to all students, we learned that Mississippi has shut down schools for the rest of the school year. As always, teachers and administrators are expected to make massive changes as seamlessly as possible, completely reinventing our entire learning system. Suddenly “summer slide” has expanded into an additional “virus slide,” and student regression seems imminent. Forget new learning — all of our work is now focused on preventing students from falling further behind.

As a teacher, my job is to assess the struggles and strengths that kids come in with and harness those to their advantage. The loss and hardship children are experiencing as a result of this crisis will certainly add to their lists of struggles, but it is my hope that students gain some resilience while living and fighting through this outrageous situation. These kids are strong. They are brave. They are capable of one day leading our nation in restructuring inequitable systems.

Abi: As of early May, there are 77 confirmed cases and three deaths in our county due to COVID-19. Like in many regions, the lack of available testing suggests these numbers grossly underestimate the spread. We wait to see whether delayed graduation ceremonies will happen in the fall, but for now the semester ends without closure. Distance learning packets are due May 15, but the state will require districts to plan extended learning for the summer. In the Delta, strong community remains the fundamental support line. I stay in touch with families and fellow teachers, and I hear the endless ways they help each other. 

So much stays the same and so much changes. Virus or not, perhaps never-ceasing waves of change are the most consistent part of all. Perhaps the strength of communities in this tide of shared new change will swell with enough force to restructure our systems to better support the communities they are meant to serve. As much as any pandemic, these schools will shape our future. 

Abi McDougal earned a B.A. in linguistics and cognitive sciences at Rice. As she wraps up her two-year commitment with Teach For America, she is preparing for her third year of teaching at Sanders Elementary School in Hollandale, Mississippi.

Bonnie Miller is a first grade teacher at Sanders Elementary School in Hollandale, Mississippi. This is her first year with Teach For America. She earned a B.A. in psychology at Rice.

Both are proud alumnae of Jones College. 

To read more stories from our Summer 2020 issue on COVID-19, go here.

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