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An entire public school district goes virtual in September 2022 due to a city’s failing water system. Videos show dark brown water pouring from faucets in the homes of Jackson, Mississippi, residents during the same month. Fast forward to today, and Jackson’s public schools are forced to go virtual again – for the same reason.
Being born and raised in Mississippi, Jackson is a city I have been to countless times and am very familiar with. Unfortunately, the infrastructure in Jackson, from roads to sewage and water to school districts, suffers tremendously. With a Black population of 82.6 percent within the city, environmental racism is prevalent through the long-standing issues Jackson has faced with roads, water, and sewage over the past few decades. In September of last year, when water system issues shut public schools down for the first time, the city of Jackson was awarded $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and $429 million “specifically allotted to enhance the state’s water infrastructure.” As a teacher and a resident of Mississippi, I cannot help but wonder why schools have been forced to go virtual again due to water system issues less than six months later. Has the city done little to nothing to resolve the water issues and permanently get students back in school?
Where Have We Gone Wrong?
With a city and school district this large and prominent within the state, how and why has it been overlooked time and time again? Why is there a systemic failure to fund Jackson’s schools and infrastructure? Politicians blame underinvestment and a lack of the city receiving stable and predictable funding. Here environmental racism comes into play.
“White flight” has drained the city’s tax base. White residents moving to the suburbs are also more likely to place their children in private schools, which reduces funding for inner-city public schools with a predominantly Black student population. Eric Avila, an urban cultural historian at UCLA, commented on Jackson’s situation, stating, “When it comes to basic services like water, transportation, electricity, you know, even the internet, it can’t be based on a who can pay and who can’t pay basis. We saw a similar situation in Flint, Michigan – which speaks to broader infrastructure inequality.”
The solution to the problem must be public policies that treat water access, transportation systems, communication networks, and sewage as fundamental human rights. Education, unfortunately, is exempt from this philosophy and is not treated as a fundamental human right. In my opinion, it should be.
“As a teacher and a resident of Mississippi, I cannot help but wonder why schools have been forced to go virtual again.” Environmental Racism Closes Jackson, Mississippi Schools…Again Click To Tweet
Isn’t There Federal Funding?
Unfortunately, our state and our country have overlooked the 20,000 students in Jackson’s public schools. Jackson is home to the largest school district in Mississippi, with 52 school sites. The district is so large that its central office spans an entire two-block area. Federal pandemic relief funds were distributed to Mississippi school districts on three separate occasions over two years, with Jackson Public Schools receiving $170,975,415 total in federal funding. Jackson’s high-poverty level and Title I status led to the large amount of funds received, much higher than other districts within the state.
Ideally the district would have spent most of these funds on methods to enhance student performance, such as updated curriculum, social emotional learning resources, and more permanent certified teachers; however, the school district and city’s infrastructure is suffering so severely that most funds were allocated toward supporting or accommodating structural improvements. For example, each school in the district received a major HVAC overhaul, which included window replacements and roof repairs for the deteriorating school buildings. The district also “spent millions on laptops, tablets, video conferencing cameras, improving broadband connectivity, licensing virtual learning programs, and digital textbooks.” This, however, was not in case of another COVID outbreak. Instead, it was to support Jackson’s struggles with school closures caused by water pressure issues. Purchasing the above supplies allows the district to pivot to virtual instruction quickly in case of infrastructure problems.
Infrastructure and School Districts Go Hand-In-Hand
The Jackson School District was recently released from a four-year probationary period enacted by the Mississippi Department of Education. The district violated 24 of the 32 standards it was expected to uphold through the MDE, including harmful structural infractions such as “outdated fire extinguishers, a need for pest control in a cafeteria, inoperable toilets, exposed pipes and wiring, and broken glass.” The crumbling school buildings align with Jackson’s overall crumbling infrastructure. Even more disturbing, money is seemingly being poured into both with no improvements.
As much as funding appears to be the root of the problem, a lack of information and communication is also evident. As Jackson’s water system administrator, Ted Henifin, told the media, “We don’t know where the valves are, we don’t know what position they’re in, we don’t have records of that, and we haven’t been able to find any of that information. We don’t have a model. All we do is pump water in from the two locations and the wells and hope for the best.” Meanwhile, some residents in Jackson have been without water for as long as two weeks.
The bottom line is the city of Jackson and its school system are in dire need of help. Whether that help will come from federal or state sources is yet to be determined; I do not believe federal funding can accomplish this task alone. Unless the district, state, and country work together and take the initiative to fully fund our schools and the Jackson School District utilizes those funds to their maximum benefit, students in the city’s public schools will continue to receive a subpar education. The citizens and students of Jackson, Mississippi, deserve better.
Ashley Chennault is currently a freelance writer and 4th-grade teacher in the small coastal town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Ashley is in her 18th year of teaching and holds a master of arts degree in elementary education. In addition, she became Nationally Board Certified in 2020. In her free time, she enjoys her second job as a contract grant writer for philanthropy corporations, boating, beaching, cooking, watching her teenage sons play sports, and spending time with her three adopted wiener dogs, Georgie, Henry, and Tripp.
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