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The 3rd school year since COVID hit has begun. Here's how students and staff feel

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the U.S., more than 50 million children are returning to classrooms. This is the third school year in the shadow of COVID-19. But, of course, a lot has changed since the beginning of the pandemic. NPR's Cory Turner was in Jackson, Miss., last week for the first day of school, talking with educators and students about how they are feeling as the school year begins. He's here with us now to share what he heard. Hey, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. So first, why Jackson? Why did you choose there to focus on?

TURNER: Well, because Jackson is one of the earliest districts to go back to school, but also, it's struggling with big issues that are going to affect lots of schools this year - things like staff shortages, learning gaps, crumbling infrastructure, including a really serious local water crisis and not to mention, you know, just how to help kids and families feel comfortable again with COVID still out there. So last week, producer Jeff Pierre and I went down there, and we just hung out for the first week.

KELLY: And what did you hear? What did you see?

TURNER: Well, we shadowed Superintendent Dr. Errick Greene as he visited four schools in the first day. He chatted with students. He checked in with teachers. And I asked him, how was he feeling?

ERRICK GREENE: Anxious, all the minor details and then all of the big, big visionary things all at the same time. So - got to eat your Wheaties (laughter).

TURNER: At every school, Greene made sure to thank not only his teachers but also cafeteria workers and custodians because it turns out, Mary Louise, this tight labor market means staff can often find better pay outside of school. There is some good news here. That is that the state of Mississippi did just pass a pretty big teacher pay raise.

KELLY: OK. So let's talk about the actual learning. I have heard anecdotally about a lot of districts struggling to get their students back up to where they should be academically. How is that playing in Jackson?

TURNER: Yeah, well, that is the story in Jackson, too, where both math and reading scores absolutely tanked during the pandemic. Third grade teacher LaTosha Bew-Cancer gave her students a writing exercise last week just to see where their skills were.

LATOSHA BEW-CANCER: In my 18 years, it is the worst that I've seen.

TURNER: Now, there is good news here too, though. So first of all, Jackson schools started last year, carving into students' schedules to create dedicated academic intervention time. And new data from last spring suggests that students there really have rebounded. Bew-Cancer says she's actually optimistic because she saw her kids on this writing exercise - she saw them trying, you know, sounding out words.

BEW-CANCER: And as long as they were working and trying to do it, then that gives me hope that they'll improve because this is just the first week of school.

KELLY: Cory, meanwhile, how are schools approaching COVID safety for this school year?

TURNER: Well, Jackson stood out last year because it required masks all year, and it still allowed some students to work remotely. This year it's not doing either. Instead, schools in Jackson and in lots of different places seem to be shifting their focus from COVID prevention to really addressing its emotional toll. The district has a new social emotional learning program, helping kids name and manage their big feelings. I spoke with one elementary counselor who started a grief group last year for students who lost a loved one. I also spoke with 15-year-old Makalin Odie, who lost her mom to COVID and has gotten help at school with her grief.

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

TURNER: You know, Mary Louise, no one thinks this year is going to be easy, but in Jackson, I saw incredible resilience like Makalin's and a genuine hopefulness for what this year could be.

KELLY: NPR's Cory Turner telling us about the first day of school in Jackson, Miss. Thank you, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.