When Sabrina Jackson came home last Friday to find that her 8-year-old son had not submitted his math assignment for virtual learning that day, she knew something had to change.
“When I saw that big equation for math, I said, ‘Something has got to give. I’ve worked all day and I have no clue how to start this math problem,’” she said.
Since school began, she and her two children — one in third grade and one in tenth — have been one of the many families across the county trying to adapt to long, frustrating hours of learning on a new system with little live instruction from teachers.
Jackson, along with over 300 others, signed a petition advocating for more teacher interaction in remote learning at the largest school district in Mississippi, DeSoto County Schools.
The petition puts blame on the systems put in place to facilitate remote learning, especially Schoology, the software used by teachers, parents and students to complete schoolwork online.
Jackson — who kept her children home for the safety of her family amid the pandemic — had contracted COVID-19 just as school was starting, which left her so weak that she had to use a wheelchair. Her son has severe asthma, which has caused him to go to the hospital before.
“I’m scared for him,” she said. “I just don’t want to take those chances.”
Jarvis Jeffries, who created the online petition, also decided to keep his daughter home because of the risk of her contracting COVID-19 alongside her asthma.
He said that he and several other parents have not heard from teachers except through emails and through the Schoology software. Though he said he does not blame teachers for the issues, Jeffries said the district should do a better job of trying to engage virtual students.
“It doesn’t seem that they’re focusing on virtual learners at home,” Jeffries said. “They gave us an option, so there has to be a way that all students are educated properly, no matter what options they chose.”
Cory Uselton, the superintendent of DeSoto County Schools, said the district is working to improve the process of virtual learning.
“This school year, we are constantly looking at ways that we can improve instruction for both traditional students and virtual students,” Uselton said in an email. “There is no other district in Mississippi that is responsible for educating over 20,000 students in person while also educating over 13,000 students virtually. As a result, we are looking to improve in both arenas every day.”
Some teachers are struggling to keep up with the new demands of having to teach in person and online.
“We work in the daytime at the school and then come home to catch up with our virtual students that we didn’t get to interact with because we were trying to do our regular job,” one teacher in the district said on the condition of anonymity to speak honestly about her employer. “It’s no secret that teachers have always had to work overtime to get everything done. This year, it’s near impossible to get everything done and new tasks are added to our plates every day.”
The virtual learning plan so far has been unfair to teachers and students, the teacher said.
“We hear parents’ criticisms of the virtual program (and often times of the teachers themselves) and some of their critiques are valid. But I do want to point out that DeSoto County Schools never really gave a concrete plan to how the virtual learning was going to be handled,” she said.
Jeffries said that he and other parents were under the impression that the plan for DeSoto County Schools for distance learning would include live instruction from teachers throughout the day. He pointed to one document from the district distributed over the summer before parents decided whether students would attend classes in person or online.
He said that he was hoping for a different distance learning experience from the end of last semester, when the pandemic suddenly closed schools around the state, but the virtual learning his daughter is doing this semester is not very different from the work done online then.
Uselton said that he has heard some positive and some negative feedback about distance learning, and said school employees are doing their best to provide the best education possible for students in and out of the classroom.
“Our teachers are doing the very best job that they can,” he said. “They are doing something that has never been done before. It is just difficult for them to be as accessible to everyone as they have been in the past.”
The school district has put job listings out for new employees who would assist in distance learning throughout the county.
Jeffries said he understands that virtual learning is new for everyone and would take time to work out the details.
“The first few days were horrible, and I made a few calls, and they just informed me that it’s going to be a work in progress,” he said. “It’s understandable.”
After waiting two weeks to see some improvement, he said, he decided to reach out again. Eventually, he decided to start the petition.
“I’ve spoken to parents who have tried to play teacher at home, and I have tried to do that as well. It just isn’t working.”
The school district will offer parents of those learning virtually to return to in-person classes at the end of the first nine weeks of school,
Now, faced with the decision of whether his daughter should continue learning virtually or return to the classroom, Jeffries said he feels as though he has to decide between a better education or a safer environment.
Through it all, he said that he was surprised by the way the district has handled virtual learning. He moved with his daughter here because the school system was so good, he said, and has always been impressed with DeSoto County Schools.
“I just cannot believe that they didn’t get this right, that they dropped the ball,” he said. “This just doesn’t sound like them. It just doesn’t.”
Jackson said that she sees some progress in online learning — two of her son’s teachers have committed to 15-30 minute live sessions throughout the week. It still isn’t enough to solve the problems her family faces, though, she said.
Now, faced with the decision of where her child should learn in the next nine weeks, Jackson has been looking into options to homeschool her children.
“I feel like I’m failing as a mother,” she said. “It’s consuming. It’s just consuming.”