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Ole Miss and The W join schools across the country reporting student outbreaks of COVID-19

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Mississippi University for-Women (Photo source MUW)

The University of Mississippi and the Mississippi University for Woman have both reported outbreaks of COVID-19.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs reported the outbreaks Wednesday during Gov. Tate Reeves live news conference.

Earlier Wednesday, MUW said that four students tested positive for COVID-19 this week. “Out of an abundance of caution,” juniors in its nursing program have shifted to remote learning for 14 days to meet classroom physical distancing measures, the university said in a statement.

The four students were asymptomatic and identified as close contacts by family members or friends who live off campus. Based on information available to university officials, there is no internal community spread on campus.

The four students who tested positive are isolating for 14 days off campus. Additionally, the other 71 students in the classroom were also notified to quarantine for 14 days.

“Our contact tracing measures went into effect immediately and we were able to identify other students and individuals who were in contact with these students,” said MUW President Nora Miller. “We are working closely with local and state health officials for guidance to ensure the continued safety of our students, faculty and staff. The health and well-being of our campus community remain a top priority.”

The University of Mississippi sent an email to students saying 14 people — 13 students and one employee — had tested positive for COVID-19 on campus, WJTV reports. Of the 13 students, 11 were on the same sports team. Testing results on other students are pending.

The W and Ole Miss join numerous colleges and universities across the country reporting outbreaks since the start of the fall semester. Many of the outbreaks have been linked to fraternity and sorority events and off-campus parties.

As a result, some colleges are moving exclusively to online classes. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved all of its undergraduate classes online after an outbreak, and the University of Notre Dame is moving classes online for at least two weeks.

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama, students lined up to get into bars, drawing harsh criticism Sunday from the school’s athletic director Greg Byrne.

“Who wants college sports this fall??” Byrne asked in a tweet, and then answered his question with, “Obviously not these people!!”

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The new normal: How Mississippi students are adjusting to a virtual school year

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A Jackson Public Schools student attends class on his laptop from a classroom at the Capitol Street campus of the Boys and Girls Club on Sept. 21, 2020. Normally an afterschool program, the Club began opening at 7 a.m. and facilitating distance learning for the children of working families after schools closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo by Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today)

On an early August morning, Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School teacher Hannah Fisher looked directly into her computer camera and asked her first graders to hold up their pencils. Every student who raised their pencil finished their assignment: spelling two and four letter words.

In a normal setting, Fisher would be in her classroom teaching students. Now, as a global pandemic has upended schooling and the way people teach, she’s fixated on students in small squares on Zoom. Some students were visible on their screens. A few others only displayed their names. 

A few minutes later, Fisher reminded students to move on to write their words. In the midst of that, she stopped to address a student’s behavior.

“Sit up,” she said to the student. “Remember we’re not (lying) on the carpet. We’re writing right now. … I’m going to turn off your video and it’ll come on in 30 seconds. OK? I’m gonna get you to fix it in that time.”

Fisher’s first graders are not alone in struggling to stay engaged, communicate and navigate online platforms. Additionally, connectivity and internet access is a hindrance to getting kids online. The Mississippi Department of Education is currently rolling out a plan to deliver nearly 400,000 devices to students. Districts are supposed to receive them no later than Nov. 20. The department said 12 districts are receiving their devices this week, though many are still waiting. 

Students and parents say they fear the negative impact the delay will have on student learning.

READ MORE: Mississippi is getting devices to every child. That’s just the first step.

“(Schools) want to make sure that kids are safe, accounted for, (and) engaged in their learning,” said Brennan Parton, policy and advocacy director at Data Quality Campaign. “They’re really having to rethink and reimagine and get creative about how we do that during this unprecedented time … the stakes are higher.”

Nearly three months ago, the state department required local school districts to submit their reopening plans detailing how they will resume — whether virtual, in-person or a mixture of the two. 

The Clarksdale Municipal School District settled on virtual learning for the first half of the semester. This changed when school officials learned many students did not have internet access or devices. So for the first two weeks of school, students received instructional packets. Currently, 21% of the student population uses instructional packets only and 57% is virtual only, according to data from the Clarksdale Municipal district.

Students said the instructional packets cause confusion and leave them unmotivated because they don’t provide the opportunity for teacher-student interaction the way a traditional classroom set up does. 

“I’ve never taken human anatomy so I don’t know what I’m doing, meaning more than likely if I don’t find the answers online, I will fail doing the packets,” Marchellos Scott, Jr., a Clarksdale High School senior, said. “The teachers said they’re just holding on, doing what they’re being told and everything keeps changing so they are confused as well.”

Scott is enrolled in virtual only but is required to complete instructional packets for certain classes, he said. He said he thinks his grades will suffer because he is not learning as much.

For other students, online learning halts much needed support services.

Griffin Threatt, an eighth grader at Clinton Junior High School, said he missed the face-to-face interaction with his teachers. Griffin is on a hybrid schedule, but a traditional classroom environment keeps him “more focused while I’m learning,” he said.

His mother, Amanda Threatt, praised his growth over the past year, but worries he won’t be able to keep up. She added he hasn’t received as much support as a student with special needs.

“I went ahead and got him a math tutor because he’s in Algebra this year just to keep him on task,” she said. “(One of his teachers) said it’s really hard to help the kids with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) because we really don’t have the support right now… He feels like he’s learning but not at the rate he’s used to.”

Some parents said virtual learning created opportunities to spend quality time they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Before the pandemic, Jackson native Brittany Watson Cain worked eight-hour days. She arrived at home around 10:00 p.m. every night, so she rarely saw her four children. When schools closed in March, so did the doors at her job. She started working from home.

“By the time you get home, you’re exhausted, they’re tired, so it wasn’t always the best scenario,” Watson Cain said. “It’s harder for some people because they don’t have that. They really don’t have childcare, you know? So I do understand.”

District officials said technology allows students to explore and use applications on their own even though it poses some challenges. Clarksdale Collegiate students had devices before the pandemic, but now students have devices at home. This means students don’t have in-person teacher support to assist with devices. Despite this, students are still able to navigate programs — like first graders submitting Google Forms, said Amanda Johnson, executive director of Clarksdale Collegiate.

 

“We’ve been pushed to think about how we use technology and just teaching our kids and getting them engaged,” Johnson said. “It’s allowing technology to help us solve problems and help us support our kids more. There’s no reason why that should go away.” 

Parton, the Data Quality Campaign director, says state education agencies and lawmakers should be forward-thinking about understanding how the pandemic has disrupted students’ learning progress. This magnifies learning inequities even more for students who need more support and resources. 

“Even as they’re trying to meet students’ acute needs — internet access, laptops, engagement in class — states also need to be planful about the kinds of things that they’re going to need to do not only now, but the rest of the school year,” Parton said. “There’s going to be a lot of academic slide for students – more than you normally lose over the course of the summer.”

Carey Wright, state superintendent of Mississippi public schools, encourages teachers to accelerate learning as a way to address learning loss, or academic slide. For example, if a student is in fifth grade, the teacher should teach fifth grade standards.

“Our standards are designed in a way that they build on each other and also spiral,” she told Mississippi Today. “If you keep drilling and killing on some of these skills, kids are never going to get it. Start with grade-level standards and accelerate their learning. That approach is one that has been validated by others in the field.”

Remote learning is a learning curve for educators and families, but consistent communication and proper resources can alleviate concerns and access barriers for students.

“Until everyone gets on the same page, it’s only going to get worse,” Scott, the Clarksdale student, said. “It’s definitely gonna be hard on students, but I think we should still put together plans in case something like this happens again.”


This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Chris Williams: called to be an educator

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(photo courtesy Chris Williams)

The road that led Chris Williams to the position as Head of School at Porter’s Chapel Academy has not been a straight or certain one.

His life’s road split when, as an adult, he gave his life to the Lord. “It was then that I realized God had a special calling on my life,” Williams said, “but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was.”

At that point, Williams had earned a degree in marketing from Mississippi State University. He had married, started a family, and was settled comfortably with successful career in sales and a position with International Paper Mill.

Once his heart belonged to Jesus, Williams began working actively with the youth in his church. It was then he realized that he was being called to not only preach God’s word but also work even more closely with young people.

He began taking master’s level classes in education from Alcorn State University in 1998 and found himself entering an entirely new field.

“Being an educator is the good Lord saying, ‘I have a mission for you for the sake of My children.’ No amount of money can pull you away from a true calling from the Lord to do His work,” Williams said.

He spent the next few years teaching at Dana Road Elementary, Vicksburg Junior High and South Park Elementary. He then spent one year as a lead teacher back at Dana Road, two years as an assistant principal at Warren Central Junior High, and the next four years as the eighth-grade principal.

At that time, he changed course again and began a full-time job as pastor of Wayside Baptist Church in 2013.

Williams said he felt God continue calling him to do more, so he worked to further his own education. He received an Education Specialists Degree in Educational Leadership from Mississippi College in 2014.

While attending MC, he was mentored by Christian educators who helped foster his desire to make a difference in education on a larger scale.

“I only stepped away from education for six months, but I was missing out on all of the fun,” he said. That’s when his road led him to Porter’s Chapel Academy.

Moving from the Vicksburg Warren School District to the Head of School at PCA was a leap of faith.

“There are a lot of unforeseen hurdles and unexpected challenges that come along with an administrative position,” Williams said. “I was accustomed to the classroom where you’re mostly concerned with making sure every one of your students is getting the best possible education you can provide. To take on that responsibility in a much larger scale has been trying. Add to that everything from handling student discipline to leaking ceilings. An administrator pretty much has their hands in a little bit of everything.”

Williams has proven he is not scared of change, and he said he will continue to tackle his latest role just like he approaches everything in his life — “with a lot of prayer and faith” that God will guide him in choosing the right direction should his life’s road fork again.

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Hinds CC’s industry partnerships focus on business needs

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Among those participating in a recent tour of the KLLM Driving Academy were, front from left, Kirk Blankenship, vice president of driver resources at KLLM; Jim Richards, CEO and President at KLLM; Hinds President Dr. Stephen Vacik; back, Hinds Vice President Dr. Chad Stocks; Federal Co-Chairman Chris Caldwell, Delta Regional Authority; Umesh Sanjanwala, state director, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's office; and Brad Ferguson, field representative for Central Mississippi, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker's office. (photo courtesy Hinds CC)

The federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority took a firsthand look at two of Hinds Community College’s partnerships with industry during a recent tour of the KLLM Driving Academy and Diesel Technology Academy, both in Richland.

The college’s partnerships with the industry leaders, KLLM Transport Services and Empire Truck Sales/Stribling Equipment, grew out of a need the companies had for trained employees. Hinds worked with the companies to craft training structures and time schedules that fit their needs, not traditional academic schedules.

“At DRA, we stress the importance of partnering with regional business leaders to develop workforce programs based on industry-specific needs,” said Delta Regional Authority Federal Co-Chairman Chris Caldwell. “Hinds Community College has done just that with the KLLM Driving Academy and Diesel Technology Academy, and I continue to be impressed by its vision and work to strengthen workforce pipelines in Mississippi.”

Caldwell toured both facilities with representatives of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

“Everything we do is about workforce,” said Dr. Stephen Vacik, who became Hinds president July 1. “I was talking to Gov. Tate Reeves last week and he said, ‘Everything we do, whether it’s an English class, whether it’s welding and everything in between, it’s about workforce development.’ And I said, ‘you’re right.’

“We have a great team, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it. We’ve got some exciting things on the horizon,” Vacik said.

The KLLM partnership began in 2012 with the current building housing the academy opening in 2014. KLLM handles the training of truck drivers. Hinds handles the coursework.

“We started this driving academy for one reason – to staff our trucks,” said Jim Richards, president and CEO of KLLM Transport Services. “We partnered with Hinds Community College, which brought a lot of credibility to us immediately. They were here on the ground level. They really understood what we were trying to do and jumped in. I never felt trapped by academia in this program. It was all about whatever we needed to do, they were available to help us.”

The KLLM tour concluded with a significant milestone for the Hinds-sponsored Registered Apprenticeship truck driver program when Dr. Vacik presented the 200th apprentice completion certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor to Richards.

Hinds has a similar partnership with Empire Trucks Sales/Stribling Equipment to train diesel technicians and parts specialists. The partners have employed 71 students and 70 other companies have employed graduates.

The partnership began in 2016 when company officials saw the KLLM partnership and said they wanted the same deal as KLLM, said Hinds Vice President Dr. Chad Stocks.

A new cohort of 15 students enters the program every eight weeks if they meet minimum requirements in core subjects either on the ACT or college placement tests. The first 30 credit hours of the program are held at the Raymond Campus with the next 15 credit hours at the Diesel Technology Academy where students focus on either transportation or equipment for a technical certificate. Students have the opportunity to continue the program for an Associate of Science degree in Diesel Equipment Technology.

“We took the model we had at KLLM, we replicated it and modified it to fit the diesel tech industry,” Stocks said. “We spent a great deal of time looking at the whole industry, and not just what the training needs are today.

“The only way to get a great workforce project is listening to industry, having the flexibility of the college to put these practices in place and building a pipeline of qualified graduates so that they have a steady stream of employees into those fields,” he said.

Hinds Community College has received workforce development grants in the past from the Delta Regional Authority, which covers 252 counties and parishes of the eight-state Delta region that includes Mississippi.

Hinds received a grant last summer for $1.3 million to expand workforce development in three distinct areas via the Workforce Opportunity for Rural Communities grant initiative. Those areas include Advanced Manufacturing, Inland Waterway Maritime and Logger Equipment Operations. Established in 2000 by Congress, the Delta Regional Authority makes strategic investments of federal appropriations into the physical and human infrastructure of Delta communities.

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