When the coronavirus pandemic gripped Mississippi, forcing school closures last spring, Nathan Oakley watched teachers, staff and administrators across the Magnolia state make the painstaking transformation.
“School districts across the state pivoted very quickly,” said Oakley, chief academic officer for the Mississippi Department of Education. “Posting content on websites for students to pull and use for remote instruction, running Zoom calls, any number of makeshift solutions for the immediate need in the spring of 2020.
“It’s been remarkable really to watch districts try to identify the best solutions for their community.”
But the makeshift transitions to online learning in many U.S. states were plagued by technology issues and rising student absence rates.
According to a survey conducted by EducationWeek, daily student absence rates nearly doubled from an average of 6% before the pandemic to 10% in fall 2020.
The lack of technology and internet access were major contributors to the huge drop in Mississippi’s student attendance. Some school districts put Wi-Fi connections on school buses that were parked in specific locations. Other schools encouraged students to use Wi-Fi connections at public libraries.
Oakley said the Mississippi Legislature and state education officials created Mississippi Connects, an initiative to buy nearly 390,000 electronic software and devices, including iPads, for students. The state also included $50 million for internet connectivity to buy hotspots, wireless and Wi-Fi-enabled devices for students and teachers.
Nearly 55% of Mississippi residents live in rural areas, according to 2010 census data. Oakley said internet access remains a concern in those remote parts of the state, since there are no data connection footprints for every residence in the state.
But some American parents met the lock-down challenges in a manner that also had an impact on school attendance. In a survey by EdWeek Research Center principals and superintendents reported that the pandemic caused a 58% drop in enrollment in school districts, with homeschooling as a main factor.
In Mississippi, 23,286 fewer students were enrolled in the 2020-21 school year compared to 2019-20, shows data from the Mississippi Department of Education. Officials said a drop in the number of kindergartners and an increase in homeschooling contributed to the enrollment decline.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, GeAndra Imoudu and her husband, Daniel, decided to homeschool their three children, ages 5, 6, and 9. The two chemical engineers did not think that there were enough suitable public or private academic options.
“The (Charlotte-Mecklenburg school) district had this ‘come in person; no, stay home, come in person; no, stay home’ kind of tug and pull going with parents,” said Imoudu. “People (were) frustrated with the lack of organization. When the children are learning virtually, people are frustrated, they have technology challenges, concern with the level of screen time.”
The homeschooling experience led Imoudu to turn STEM Skool, an education nonprofit that serves about 30 students each session, into a learning pod. Initially created by Imoudu in 2017 as an afterschool program, STEM Skool’s most recent curriculum had a nine-week program from a global studies perspective that taught plant biology, agricultural engineering and animal science that evolved from Mesopotamia to modern times.
Imoudu said her children love being homeschooled and are performing well because they are getting dedicated, one-on-one attention, and they have remained active in sports and art classes.
“(My husband and I) went into the pandemic knowing that learning doesn’t have to happen in a room, in a building, in front of a board,” she said. “My son plays violin and trumpet, all of that creative stuff. School doesn’t look like one thing, and we adapted quickly.
“Even if we can’t have face-to-face or group interaction like we’d like, (the children) still have been able to see friends and instructors,” she said. “If you and your friends want to take your kids out for pizza in the park, it’s flexible.
“Home-schooled kids are not locked inside of a building all day with one group of classmates,” Imoudu said, “so they probably have a more diverse and robust social experience than their peers who are in (a brick-and-mortar) school.”
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