By 12:30 the high school water fountains were turning brown and all the bathrooms in the middle school had also stopped working, so Henderson decided to close both schools for the day. A bell rang and Ellington plunged into the wet corridors. Water splashed on their khakis, and the other children started yelling towards the front of the school. When Ellington escaped, she searched for her bus but couldn’t see it.
Finally, after half an hour of wandering around the parking lot, the manager came screaming. There weren’t enough buses in the county to release both middle and high school students at the same time, he explained. “Now go back to your A-block class,” the principal shouted. “Move. Let’s go.”
Ellington walked in, but when he got to his classroom there were no other students.
Throughout the spring, Ellington wrote complaints to Henderson. There were no textbooks in his algebra class, so he spent half the term copying equations onto loose paper. The instructor tried to augment his lectures with online homework from Khan Academy, a nonprofit that offers free video tutorials, but Ellington didn’t have a home computer or internet access and couldn’t figure out how to do the lecture on his own. phone, so it did not complete. When the teacher scolded him, Ellington was so embarrassed that he argued with him until he sent him to the principal’s office.
A few nights before spring break, Henderson saw Ellington at the roundtable and could see how overwhelmed the teenager felt. He wasn’t buying a science lab. He couldn’t do his homework. Even part of the school day was wasted. “I just want to get out of Holmes County,” Ellington said.
Henderson didn’t know how long it would take him to help Ellington. He might not be able to find a drama teacher before the end of term, and the district probably wouldn’t build a new school before Ellington graduated, but Henderson promised the second half of the spring semester would be better.
Two weeks later, the coronavirus reached Mississippi.
Henderson knew that Internet access was problematic at Holmes, but she had no idea how bad it was: When she surveyed families in the area, she found that more than 75 percent of her students had no way of getting online. Many teachers didn’t either.
Like all poor school districts, Holmes receives federal money under a program called Title I. In a normal year, Holmes officials spend an extra $1,000 or more per student on teachers and teacher aides, but after schools closed due to the pandemic, Henderson has reallocated some of the schools. Those dollars to buy Chromebooks. By the end of March, he had distributed 1,300 tablets. It also turned six school buses into hotspots, but infrastructure couldn’t reach every family. There were 3,000 students in the district. Some families said they had several kids competing to use a Chromebook, and each school bus hotspot broadcast only 100 feet, leaving most of the county inaccessible.