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Schools in Mississippi face another year in the shadow of the pandemic

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Across the U.S., more than 50 million kids are getting back to or getting ready for the new school year.

ERRICK GREENE: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.

GREENE: Are these second-graders?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What grade y'all in?

GREENE: Is this second grade?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Say, no.

GREENE: Third grade?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What grade?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: First grade.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: First grade.

GREENE: No. No...

FADEL: At North Jackson Elementary in Jackson, Miss., students got a special visit on their first day from Superintendent Dr. Errick Greene. So began the third school year in the shadow of COVID-19. But whereas the first was defined by school closures and the second by fights over masking, we wondered what stories will define this school year. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner went to Mississippi to find out. And he joins us now. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Cory, why'd you choose Jackson?

TURNER: Over the pandemic, I interviewed Superintendent Greene, who we just heard there, a few times. And I found Jackson's story really interesting, you know? Like so many big city districts, it struggles with poverty. It has to do more for its students with less money than many of its neighboring districts. You know, the city's aging water system is also a slow-motion disaster. School water fountains are taped off. That said, as much as Jackson stands out, there is a lot happening there right now that I think will resonate with educators and families all over the country about pandemic learning gaps, staff shortages and just, you know, the way folks are feeling right now.

FADEL: Yeah. OK. So why don't you set the scene for us?

TURNER: Sure. So Jackson public schools serve about 21,000 students in Mississippi's capital city.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. Fantastic.

TURNER: On the first morning of school at North Jackson Elementary, new kindergarteners line up outside. And I ask one little boy, waiting with his grandmother, if he's feeling ready.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Uh-uh.

UNIDENTIFIED GRANDMOTHER: Uh-uh?

TURNER: Uh-uh?

UNIDENTIFIED GRANDMOTHER: Say, no, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: No, sir.

TURNER: Inside, 6-year-old M'Lyah proudly shows off her sparkly silver and orange fingernails.

M'LYAH: I got them done at the nail store.

TURNER: Superintendent Greene watches M'Lyah and the boy next to her color at their desks.

GREENE: Look at that. You better than me.

TURNER: This was the first of 26 schools Greene planned to visit this first week. At each stop, in addition to meeting with teachers and scholars - that's what he calls students here - Greene makes sure to pop into the cafeterias, too.

FLORA MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

TURNER: I've brought a few of my friends, so...

MCBRIDE: Oh, OK.

TURNER: ...Don't mind us.

MCBRIDE: Right, right.

TURNER: He asks cafeteria worker Ms. Flora McBride, what's for breakfast on Day 1?

MCBRIDE: We got bacon with sausage, pancake on a stick. We got eggs, grits, fresh fruit, juice and milk.

TURNER: At every stop, Greene also makes a point of thanking the custodians.

GREENE: Thank you so much. I know this is a big job. And we got a lot...

UNIDENTIFIED CUSTODIAN: Well, no. It's all in a day's work.

GREENE: Oh, I know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

GREENE: Listen; I know you got it.

UNIDENTIFIED CUSTODIAN: Yeah.

GREENE: But I want you to know that we see you. And...

TURNER: The tight labor market has meant custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers in Jackson and across the country can often find better pay outside of school. The stress of the pandemic and politics has also driven out some teachers. And that's just the beginning of Superintendent Greene's challenges this year. Jackson's school buildings also need constant repair.

TANYA FORTENBERRY: Well, I looked up how to make a homemade air conditioner because I have to do something. So...

TURNER: When science teacher Tanya Fortenberry's classroom air conditioner broke, she built her own.

FORTENBERRY: I put, like, 10 to 12 bottles of water in the freezer. Put them in there. This little fan here blows the air out. Right now, it's not working because the ice is melted. But in the morning, it's pretty cool. It keeps it down a couple of degrees (laughter).

TURNER: Fortenberry also wears a pin that captures the mood of so many in the Jackson Public School District - not today, Satan.

FORTENBERRY: We're going to get it done, you know? Throw all your wrenches at us if you want to, you know? No air conditioner? That's all right. We're going to work through it, you know? Not today, Satan (laughter).

TURNER: And the good news is, they're getting help. The state's governor just signed a big teacher pay raise. And Congress has sent Jackson more than $200 million in pandemic aid. Superintendent Greene says he'll spend nearly a third of that on building upgrades, including new HVAC in six of his seven high schools.

GREENE: You know, a sizable chunk. Thankful that we've got it. Unfortunate that we've got to spend it on that.

TURNER: Greene would rather spend those federal dollars on learning. More than a year of schooling online took an enormous toll on his students academically. While new data from the spring does suggest the district has worked its way back to pre-pandemic levels in reading and math, those levels were still pretty low.

GREENE: And so we've got a ways to go. But we're hopeful that we'll continue to make some pretty big leaps.

TURNER: Maybe the biggest question facing the educators and families of Jackson and much of the country this year is emotional, how are they feeling about returning to school with COVID refusing to go away? Colandra Moore, who was walking her 10-year-old son to class, echoed what producer Jeff Pierre and I heard from many families.

COLANDRA MOORE: I'm not a good teacher. I'm a good mom, but I'm not a good teacher. So I mean, everything was fine then. It's fine now - never had a child to get COVID. So I'm all right with it.

TURNER: Jackson Public schools required masks all year last year and still allowed some students to work remotely. This year, though, like most districts, it's not doing either. Latrenda Owens says she lost a cousin to COVID and that her son, a ninth-grader, is still going to wear his mask.

LATRENDA OWENS: Because COVID is still here. I mean, I know some have their 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?

TURNER: Jackson schools are also focusing on other ways to protect students, not just from COVID, but from the emotional toll it's taken. The district has a 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 the district is paying special attention to students who've lost a loved one.

TIFFANY JOHNSON: Maybe my younger kids would draw pictures about that loved one and tell me some special things about them.

TURNER: Elementary school counselor Tiffany Johnson set up a grief group for kids last year. One little girl, who lost her mom to COVID, liked to come to Johnson's office and just play with a tower of Jenga blocks painted bright pink and blue and purple.

JOHNSON: And I told her that it's kind of 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 going to fall. But guess what? We can build it back up again.

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

MAKALIN ODIE: To me, can't nobody compare to my mom. Can't nobody come close to her. I would sneak in her bed at night and lay up under her. I was just very, very attached to her. And she'll do anything for the people that she love. Even people that she don't know, she'll do anything for them. I felt like she was a angel on Earth.

TURNER: Makalin says she's gotten help with her grief from a counselor at school. And this year, she says, she feels ready to put herself out there more, to try out for track and soccer.

ODIE: I mean, sometimes, I just get a burst of anger. And I have to let it out. Or I just cry. Or sometimes, I just don't even want to get up. I just want to sleep all day. But then, I have to get up and go. Like, I just got to - I got to do it.

TURNER: We heard this kind of resilience from so many in Jackson. No one thinks this year will be easy. But the schools are open. The kids are back. And Ms. Flora McBride's got hot eggs and grits waiting for them.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Jackson, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF DORENA'S "MY CHILDHOOD FRIEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.

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