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As a new year starts, schools prepare for fewer masks, more...

Jeffrey Pierre

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More than 50 million children are slowly returning to classrooms for the new school year — the third year in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the first year was defined by widespread school closures, and the second by bitter fights over masking, what stories will define this year?

For answers, we went to one of the earliest districts to open this summer.

Hot butter

Jackson Public Schools serve more than twenty thousand students in Mississippi's capital city. In August, walking feels like swimming in hot butter. The grits, though, are incredible because they're swimming in hot butter.

At North Jackson Elementary, kindergarteners line up outside as teachers and staff crowd the curbs in bright orange tee-shirts, cheering families and handing out stickers to students to make clear how they'll be getting home: bus or car.

Nearly all children arrive wearing cloth masks; Jackson was unusual last year in that it required them. This year, though, masks are optional.

The Jackson district's superintendent, Errick Greene, hurries across the street in a forest-green and blue plaid jacket. Bald on top with a sharp, frosted beard, Dr. Greene, as he's known to students and staff, moves like a man on fire.

His harried schedule for the week includes stops at 26 of the district's schools.

Welcome to the national labor shortage

Inside North Jackson Elementary, Greene pops in and out of classrooms.

In one first-grade room, he jokes with the children.

"Good morning! Is this second grade?"

"No!" the students respond, giggling. Greene is a serious man with serious things on his mind, and the kids clearly enjoy watching him play the fool.

"Third grade?" he asks.

"First grade!" the children answer, savoring the chance to correct their teacher's boss' boss.

At her desk, 6-year-old M'Lyah colors, gripping a blue crayon between her newly painted orange and glittery-silver fingernails.

"Look at that. You're better than me," Greene laughs.

At all four of the day's stops, Greene not only meets with teachers and scholars (that's what he calls the students), but also custodians and cafeteria workers.

"I know this is a big job," he tells one custodian, who shyly responds, "It's all in a day's work."

This is when the story in Jackson, and the challenges its educators and families face this year, starts to feel like the story of so many districts right now.

The tight labor market has meant custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers can often find better wages elsewhere.

So Greene makes sure his staff feel valued.

"Listen, I know you got it," Greene tells the custodian, "but I want you to know that we see you."

'Not today, Satan'

Jackson, like many big-city districts, struggles with poverty.

One in three families here with a student in the public schools lives below the poverty line, and most students qualify for food assistance at school.

After the district attempted to desegregate, around 1970, white families left in droves, for private schools or the suburbs.

Today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's face still adorns the school district's central office building, even as 95% of Jackson students are Black.

The city's aging water system is a slow-motion disaster and already complicating Greene's urgent plans. Many school water fountains are taped off, the water regularly under a boil warning.

During the first week of classes, every school is given bottled water, and several schools barely have enough water pressure to flush their toilets.

Jackson's school buildings also need constant repair.

"I had to do something," says science teacher Tanya Fortenberry who, when her classroom air conditioner broke, built her own out of styrofoam.

"I put, like, 10 to 12 bottles of water in the freezer, put 'em in there. This little fan here blows the air out," she says. "Right now it's not working 'cause the ice has melted, but in the morning it's pretty cool!"

Fortenberry wears a lanyard with a pin that captures the mood of so many educators and families in Jackson right now. It says, "Not Today Satan."

"We're gonna get it done," Fortenberry explains. "Throw all your wrenches at us if you want to, you know? No air conditioner? That's alright, we're gonna work through it, you know? Not today Satan."

The good news is, Jackson is getting help.

A bond measure allowed the district to renovate all of its high school libraries in the past two years, adding comfortable, welcoming furniture and coffee stations for students.

Congress also sent the district more than $200 million dollars in pandemic aid.

Superintendent Greene says he'll spend nearly a third of that on building upgrades, including new H-VAC in six of his seven high schools.

"You know, a sizeable chunk. [I'm] thankful that we've got it. Unfortunate that we've got to spend it on [facilities]."

Greene would rather spend those federal dollars on learning.

The pandemic's academic fallout

As in many big-city school districts, most Jackson students spent the entire 2020-'21 school year learning online — or trying to. When students returned to buildings in fall of '21, test scores showed proficiency levels had plummeted.

In 2019, before the pandemic, roughly 27% of Jackson students were at or above grade level in English Language Arts. After a year of online learning, that dropped to just 18%.

LaTosha Bew-Cancer saw the backsliding firsthand as a second-grade teacher last year.

"I had children in second grade [reading] on a kindergarten level, and it was difficult," says Bew-Cancer. "Although they may not have made it to be second-grade probable readers, they did grow. And that was the goal."

The story in math was even worse. In 2019, nearly 24% of Jackson students were at or above grade level. After a year of online learning, just 9% were.

So last year, Greene and his team did what many schools across the U.S. were doing: Everything they could. Most importantly, they carved dedicated blocks of time into students' daily schedules for academic intervention.

Students who needed help catching up in math or reading got it, either from classroom teachers or dedicated interventionists.

Preliminary data from last spring suggest the push made a big difference: Proficiency levels are nearly back to where they were before the pandemic.

Of course, those levels are still low, and Superintendent Greene knows he needs to keep pushing if the district is to make its turnaround goals.

'We're hopeful'

Greene arrived in Jackson five years ago, after helping manage the schools in Tulsa. He agreed to lead the city's troubled district out of academic and administrative crisis, after Mississippi leaders threatened a state takeover.

Today, Jackson is in the fourth year of a five-year turnaround plan; Greene's success or failure to meet the plan's lofty goals will be his legacy.

Unfortunately, no one imagined a pandemic when those goals were set.

"We've got a ways to go. But we're hopeful we'll continue to make some pretty big leaps," Greene says from a conference room in the district's central office.

Making those leaps will mean asking even more of Jackson's teachers. And some are still exhausted from the past few years.

"I'm constantly encouraging [teachers], 'Please don't leave. I'm begging you not to leave,' " says Akemi Stout, president of the Jackson chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. "The extra hours. Oh, my gosh. I've had so many phone calls about that just since [the school year started]."

The state's governor recently signed a big teacher pay raise, which should help the district hold onto some of the teachers it loses every year to better wages in neighboring states.

Bew-Cancer, who's teaching third grade this year, says she's ready for the challenges of this new year — and hopeful, like Greene.

"We had a writing exercise today, and it was difficult to look at. We have work to do, but I'm optimistic," Bew-Cancer says, because the students tried. "I'm ready for this year. I'm excited."

'COVID is still here'

Perhaps the biggest question facing the educators and families of Jackson, and the rest of the country this school year, is emotional: How are they feeling about returning to school with COVID refusing to go away?

"I'm a good mom, but I'm not a good teacher," laughs Colandra Moore after walking her 10-year-old son to class. Translation: She's thrilled that school has started and that there seems little chance of the district going remote again.

Jackson Public Schools was unusual in that it required masks all of last year and still allowed some students to work remotely. This year, it's doing neither.

Latrenda Owens says she lost a cousin to COVID and that her son, a ninth-grader, is still going to wear his mask.

"Because COVID is still here. I mean, I know some have they feelings about it, but my thing is, vaccinated or not, it's still here. So why not still have them wear masks. Why not still have them protect themselves."

Jackson's schools are also focusing on other ways to protect students — not just from COVID but from the emotional toll it's taken.

'I felt like she was an angel on earth'

The district has a relatively new social-emotional learning program, with teachers starting every day checking in with kids and working with them to name and manage their fears and frustrations.

And staff are paying special attention to students who've lost a loved one.

"Maybe my younger kids would draw pictures about that loved one and tell me some special things about them," says elementary school counselor Tiffany Johnson, who set up a grief group for students last year.

One little girl, who lost her mother to COVID, liked to visit Johnson's office and play with a tower of brightly-painted Jenga blocks.

"I told her, that's kinda like your emotions sometimes: Everything could be perfect and the Jenga looks perfect now, but once we start to pull and move things, then, you know, something happens. Everything's gonna fall. But guess what, we can build it back up again."

Fifteen-year-old Makalin Odie and her 17-year-old sister, Alana, lost their mother to COVID early in the pandemic.

"To me, can't nobody compare to my mom. Can't nobody come close to her," Makalin says.

"I would sneak in her bed at night, lay up under her," Alana remembers. "I was just very, very attached to her. She'll do anything for the people that she love. Even the people that she don't know, she'll do anything for them. I felt like she was an angel on earth."

Makalin says she got help last year with her grief from a counselor at school, and this year, she says, she feels ready to put herself out there in a way she didn't feel comfortable last year, trying out for track and maybe even soccer.

"I mean, sometimes I'd just get a burst of anger, and I'd have to let it out. Or I'd just cry," Makalin says. "Or sometimes I just don't even wanna get up, I just wanna sleep all day. But then I have to get up and go. I just gotta. I gotta do it."

No one thinks this new school year will be easy, but resilience, like Makalin's, abounds in Jackson, along with a hopefulness for what the year could be.

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