- Schools in Jackson, Mississippi, began the new year with remote classes, their campuses closed yet again because of issues with the city’s water system.
- Jackson school officials are counting on the city to permanently fix the water issues, but it could be a long wait: The mayor said it could require up to $2 billion – and years – to fix the water infrastructure completely.
- Education experts worry about how the disruptions will affect student learning, especially as students work to recover from pandemic-related learning loss and face statewide testing in the coming months.
When Jackson, Mississippi, was hit with yet another water crisis the first week of this year, it meant students in the city’s school district couldn’t return to campus after the winter break.
Dismal water pressure left classrooms again without clean drinking water and the ability to use restrooms on campus. So school officials asked kids to log into virtual classes again this year.
And it could happen again and again.
Jackson water crisis:A century of poverty, neglect and racism
Kids in Jackson, where more than 80% of residents are Black, aren’t strangers to boiling their water at home when the local water system fails. The city’s water system has been troubled for decades, with local and state lawmakers are at odds about how to fix it and who is responsible.
The on-and-off-again problems have closed classrooms several times this school year alone, and education leaders are concerned that the closures are costing valuable instruction time ahead of state testing.
“We’re taking it one day at a time and hoping we can go through the rest of the school year without any issues,” said George Stewart, the Jackson Association of Educators’ president and who teaches at a middle school in Jackson, “but people aren’t confident.”
A Jackson Public Schools spokesperson said the fate of the remainder of the school year is in the city’s hands. While they wait, the Mississippi Department of Education said it is supporting the district whenever it needs to switch to remote teaching, said Shanderia Minor, a spokesperson for the education department.
What happened to the water in Jackson?
Fluctuating water pressure in Jackson last week led to boil water notices across the city, leaving about 150,000 residents without drinking water amid below-freezing temperatures.
But those water pressure problems are only the most recent setback for city residents. Other woes have included water shutoffs and exposure to bacteria. Advocates have blamed the water pressure problems on neglect, racism and aging water infrastructure.
On Jan. 5, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba announced the city is allocating $800 million to solve the water pressure issues with funding from the federal government, including $600 million from an ominous bill passed by Congress in December. But it will take time, and even more money, to resolve all of the water system’s problems, he said.
Will schools close again?
Almost certainly. And it’s unclear if, or when, the closures will come to an end.
Stewart, the state teachers association president, said he can’t even count how many times his school closed this year.
The closures aren’t always districtwide. District officials have closed select schools in different parts of the city at various points depending on the respective area’s water pressure, he said.
In the beginning of the school year, for instance, the district shifted to virtual learning after theJackson experienced a major flood and brought students back to classrooms nearly two weeks later , district spokesperson Sherwin Johnson said.
How much time do kids spend in school? It depends on where they live.
“We would obviously prefer to be in school at all times,” Johnson said. “Research shows our kids learn better in person. But of course we want our schools to be safe as well, and so obviously having a large number of scholars and staff in school buildings and having them not being able to use restrooms, nor have adequate drinking water, is not safe.”
When the city issued boil water notices last week, all 52 district schools closed to the nearly 19,000 students who attend for two days. After starting the semester with two days of virtual learning, they returned to classrooms on Monday.
Given past water issues, the district was prepared for the closures and even arranged to have families pick up devices the day ahead of school for virtual learning, Johnson said.
“The only other option is not to have school at all,” Johnson said, noting even virtual learning is an inconvenience for families who have to consider childcare when school is closed. “We don’t want to lose that learning time for our scholars.”
In an announcement declaring a safe return to school, the district thanked “JPS families for their patience and understanding.”
What concerns do teachers have?
Johnson said more than 90% of students logged on during the recent closures, but Stewart warned that for some students, virtual learning doesn’t work. Some students aren’t able to connect to online learning while others may have to babysit or attend to other responsibilities at home when schools go online, Stewart said.
The pandemic made this remote schooling possible – and also demonstrated it generally doesn’t serve kids well even if it’s in the name of safety.
The teachers are adamant the “water issue is an education issue,” and there will be consequences for students, he said.
“The thing is, you have to deal with the learning loss. So when you have students not logging in or who are unable to log in, they’re missing valuable learning time,” Stewart said. “We’re in the spring now, and moving forward to state testing … and anytime a kid misses five or more days of school they’re at a severe disadvantage.”
Contact Kayla Jimenez at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.
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