As school districts across Mississippi decide how or if they will reopen for in-person learning, nearly 200 student teachers at the University of Mississippi are preparing for the school year under ever-changing conditions.
Education majors spend their senior year student teaching in schools throughout north and central Mississippi. They assist a teacher several times a week during the fall semester and step into a more significant teaching role in the spring.
Susan McClelland, chair of teacher education, said the biggest challenge facing student teachers this fall is the uncertainty of in-person instruction.
“The biggest challenge that we have is the unknown,” Mclelland said. “Will the schools start? How long will they be in session, and what will (student teaching) look like if they close due to COVID-19?”
None of the school districts in which UM students are placed have announced a transition to all-virtual learning this fall. Currently, the School of Education intends for all of its seniors to report to their placement for face-to-face instruction.
Many teachers and parents across the state have expressed concern about schools returning for in-person classes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge. Teachers have held demonstrations showing that their classrooms can not support socially distanced learning, and grassroots organization, Mississippi Teachers Unite recently penned a letter to Gov. Tate Reeves asking the Mississippi Department of Education to postpone reopening in favor of virtual learning until at least Sept. 1.
A recent survey of nearly 2,400 teachers and teaching assistants by the Mississippi Association of Educators showed that 86% of respondents held a negative sentiment about returning to schools. One educator who responded to the survey said, “Teachers shouldn’t have to risk their lives to teach.”
Virginia Moore, elementary education program coordinator, said that student teachers can request to be paired with a teacher who will be teaching virtually if they think their health will be put at risk in their assigned classroom.
“Every school district now has teachers that are going virtual, so if a student needs to be fully virtual, they’ll be placed with a virtual teacher,” Moore said, adding that at least one student has already changed their placement.
Jaylen Cummings, a senior education major, will be student teaching at Oxford Middle School (OMS) this fall. Cummings said he had some concerns about being in the classroom with students but was relieved that OMS was requiring all students to wear masks.
“What I hope for … is they try to shrink the class sizes and practice social distancing,” Cummings said.
OMS will require masks, but not every school hosting student teachers will. Still, the university will require student teachers to wear masks, even if their school does not require it.
“Some of the schools are actually saying they can take their mask off while they’re in class, but we’re going to have them follow the university protocol,” Moore said.
Many educators are concerned that masks will not be enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus in schools and are advocating for a later start date. Corinth School District —— the state’s first district to return to in-person instruction — requires its students to wear masks but reported its first case of COVID-19 just four days after reopening.
Some school districts have already announced that they will transition to online learning for the fall semester, and many more are likely to follow. The question is when they will make that decision.
The school of education is preparing for school districts to move to online learning after returning to in-person instruction.
“Most of the schools have very good transition plans in place, so if they go from face-to-face learning within days to virtual, they can make that transition,” McClelland said.
Cummings said that he was worried that school could start and then quickly transition to online learning, and he noted that some school districts have already made that transition.
“I’m just trying to stay positive,” Cummings said.