COLUMBIA, Miss. — Danielle Whittington teaches 40 fourth-grade students each day but she has not met all of them in person. In her hybrid classroom, 15 are at home, and the rest are in school — and, she says, she is worried that the two groups are not getting the same education.

For students at home, Whittington gets to school each morning at 6:30 to record 15-minute videos, which walk the remote learners through the day’s online assignments.

The students in class are with their teacher, who set up a green screen so they can practice being weather forecasters and who provides experiential lessons that students had come to expect before the coronavirus pandemic. Sometimes, a student will give her a hug. “Relationships are number one,” she said. “I’m never going to push a child away.”

She said she is certain many of the students at home are alone, doing their work with no help from an adult. “They will be delayed,” she said of the virtual learners. “They’re not going to be as advanced as the kids that are sitting in this class.”

The dynamic in Whittington’s classroom is being seen in schools across the country as districts attempt to keep students learning in the 2020-2021 academic year while the coronavirus pandemic persists. Each school system devised its own plan for learning, based on local and state requirements, and their choices reflect geography, community infection rates and the politics of state leaders.

Many districts chose to teach all students remotely for a period of weeks or months as infections spread in their communities. Others, in places where fewer people were testing positive, are trying full in-person classes. Many others are doing a combination, offering both in-person and virtual learning so parents can choose.

'They're fighting the fear'

In Mississippi, which as of Thursday had 96,032 confirmed and probable infections, and 2,894 deaths attributed to covid-19, almost all school districts are offering in-person classes, including the small Columbia district in Marion County. Since the school year began Aug. 6, there have been six confirmed covid-19 cases in students and one in a teacher. None was in the elementary school, according to Superintendent Jason Harris.

About two-thirds of the families in the 1,624-student district, which is about 48 percent White and 47 percent Black, chose in-person classes. The number of remote learners has a similar racial divide.

“They’re fighting the fear, but they’re doing it because they know this is the best possible education for them,” Whittington said of the families who sent their children to school.

Whittington’s students who learn from home must check in by 8 a.m., each sending her a message so she knows they are logged on, but she may not be in touch with them again until students in the classroom leave for the day at 2 p.m. When they get on the bus, she is available to the virtual learners to answer their questions.

“It’s controlled chaos,” she said. “It’s like a family group with half of your family missing so you feel like half of your kids are deployed.”

At night, she responds to parent emails — but she doesn’t have Internet access at home, so she parks her car on the highway where she can get a signal.

She is “absolutely positive that there are children by themselves at home” throughout the school day.

“We all know that some of these kids are sitting at home by themselves, some of them do not have parents that are equipped or feel equipped to educate them and follow along. You have some parents who are right on top of things and are sending stuff in that you’re not even asking for, and then you’ve got some parents that you can’t get on the phone.”

A matter of safety

While high school students in the Columbia district who have chosen remote learning have live instruction, elementary students do not. Whittington said she and other teachers were concerned about the possibility of giving live access to elementary classrooms and not knowing who was watching. The decision was a matter of safety, she said. She sometimes records herself teaching to send the next morning to the remote students.

But as a result, the experience is very different for the two groups of students.

The fourth-grade class is divided into two rooms, and the students remain there, at desks spaced an arm’s length apart, while Whittington moves back and forth to teach reading, language arts and social studies. Lindsey Lucas does the same to teach math and science.

Whittington’s class is currently learning about weather, and the topic runs through all of her lessons. She has set up a green screen for students to stand in front of and practice telling the weather before a meteorologist comes in for a talk and in-person demonstration. While “forecast” is a vocabulary word for both sets of students, the ones at home are not feeling and experiencing what those in the classroom are.

The same is true with the lesson on space. Whittington used mementos and space memorabilia from her father, who once worked for NASA. The students in the classroom were able to see astronaut patches and a flag that had been to space (although, with the pandemic, they were not passing the items around).

“I can show [remote learners] pictures all day long, but it’s not the same as being in the classroom and being able to build off the excitement of their classmates,” she said.

Virtual learning “doesn’t make the impact that it needs to, but it’s the best in a not-great situation to continue to make sure that these kids are being instructed,” she said.

During individual reading lessons with students, tucked away in a corner of the room, Whittington wears a face shield over her mask and allows the student to take off their mask. When they put their mask back on, she takes hers off but still wears the shield. It’s the only way she has figured out to effectively teach them while keeping a barrier. She needs to see their lips move, and they need to see hers. With a mask on, she said, it’s impossible for her students to get the full benefit of the instruction they need.

Fighting back tears, she said, “Teachers at this school are not here for the money, I promise you that. Mississippi teachers get paid less than any other state there is, so when we are here, we are here for these kids.”

As she talked, a child came up and wrapped her arms around Whittington’s waist. Whittington returned the gesture, enveloping the child in a side hug.

Unlike in many schools in the state, all students, even kindergartners, are given a laptop at the beginning of the school year, so when doors closed in the spring and everyone was sent home, at least they had the devices. However, as a fourth-grade teacher, Whittington must now go over what her students should have learned at the end of their third-grade year, while they were working from home.

“There’s such a wide learning gap right now,” she said. “That can’t be negated, and we’re having to go back over those several months that they missed.”

The district put safety measures in place in an effort to keep students and faculty as safe as possible. Before students or faculty enter the building, their temperature is taken three times in a row to ensure an accurate reading. Hand sanitizer stations sit at the end of each hallway. Yellow wildcats, the school’s mascot, are painted four feet apart on the floor to encourage social distancing. High-touch surface areas are cleaned every 30 minutes, and a cleaning crew comes regularly.

The cafeteria is closed, and children eat lunch in their classroom, the only time they’re collectively allowed to take their masks off. Over a school-provided lunch of chili cheese fries, corn and chocolate milk recently, the children in Whittington’s classroom were repeatedly reminded to look forward while they ate.

“It makes me very nervous,” she said. “I tell them all the time, ‘If you’re going to spit on somebody, it’s going to be the back of their head.’ ”

Whittington said the spring was a “mock situation” for the fall. She advocated for schools to reopen this year, serving on both the Columbia School District committee and state advisory committee, giving her opinion on safeguards and procedures from a teacher’s perspective.

“I have a healthy fear of covid, but I also know, for a lot of these children, school is the safest environment for them, and this is considering everything, physically, emotionally, mentally,” she said.

“There’s a lot of kids that we don’t know what happens when they go home every day, that this is their source of food, their source of comfort, it’s where they’re treated with respect. I was a firm believer that we needed to come back to school.”

Sarah Fowler is a freelance journalist based in Jackson, Miss.