The first day of school for students in the Starkville Oktibbeha School District is delayed until August 24. Teachers will return to their classrooms on August 17.
I have wrestled with this decision for several days as parents have requested a transition to virtual learning for their students at a rapidly increasing pace. It is difficult to keep track of the number of daily requests.
After calculating the numbers today, our schools have processed more than 1,000 requests to switch to virtual learning since July 21. That's 20 percent of our students. And it's in addition to the 2,000 students who originally requested a virtual model for their preferred learning option.
As we began planning to offer multiple learning options for students as early as May, we were prepared to accommodate up to 25% of our families through virtual learning. Since mid-July, the number of students in our school district choosing virtual/hybrid learning model has increased from around 30 percent to more than 40 percent.
Our schools simply need the additional time to prepare. We do not have the capacity to offer live or recorded virtual instruction to 40-plus percent of our students.
The increase in virtual students has also required us to shift traditional teachers to virtual teachers which is creating challenges as we limit in-person class size to achieve even a minimum of 3 feet of distance in some of our classrooms.
We will use the next two weeks to train a core group of teachers who will build instructional learning modules to share with their colleagues. This core group of teacher trainers will be deployed to work with teachers at each school when they return to their classrooms on August 17.
With a teacher start date of August 17, teachers will have an additional day to prepare prior to students arriving. I have asked MDE for a waiver to reduce the 180 day requirement, but at this time, MDE is not granting those requests. The year ahead is extremely uncertain, but if we are required to fulfill a 180 DAY calendar, school will extend into June.
In March, I committed to protecting the health and safety of our students, staff, and families. That commitment includes adequately preparing our teachers to return to the classroom during a pandemic and it requires training on new safety protocols and training in a new digital teaching environment. Both are also essential to providing a safe, healthy learning environment for our students.
The reality is our teachers are reluctantly returning to classrooms, and our parents are reluctantly sending their children into our classrooms as positivity rates for Covid-19 continue to climb in our state and in our community.
This is a difficult time for all of us, and it will only become more difficult if we fail our teachers, staff, students and families with a premature return to the classroom.
Schedule distribution planned at SHS, AJH, and PMS, along with open house events scheduled at elementary schools, for the week of August 3 will be delayed two weeks. Your children's schools will be sharing additional information in the coming days.
I sincerely appreciate your support as we continue to navigate this unknown season.
We'll get through this together.