By 12:30 p.m., the high school’s water fountains were running brown, and every bathroom at the middle school had stopped working, too, so Henderson decided to close both schools for the day. A bell rang, and Ellington ambled into the wet hallways. Water splashed against his khakis, and other boys yelled and pushed their way to the front of the school. When Ellington made it out, he searched for his bus, but he didn’t see it.
Eventually, after the teenagers milled around the parking lot for half an hour, the principal came through screaming. The district didn’t have enough buses to release both the middle and high school students at once, he explained. “Move back to your A-block class now,” the principal shouted. “Move. Let’s go.”
Ellington headed inside, but when he reached his classroom, no other students were there.
All spring, Ellington texted complaints to Henderson. His algebra class didn’t have textbooks, so he spent half the period copying equations onto loose sheets of paper. The instructor tried to augment their lessons with online homework from Khan Academy, a nonprofit that offers free video tutorials, but Ellington didn’t have a computer or internet access at home, and he couldn’t figure out how to do the lesson on his phone, so he didn’t complete it. When the teacher scolded him, Ellington felt so embarrassed, he argued with her until she sent him to the principal’s office.
A few nights before spring break, Henderson saw Ellington at a round-table meeting, and he could see how crushed the teenager felt. He wasn’t getting a science lab. He couldn’t do his homework. Even part of the school day was a waste. “I just want out of Holmes County,” Ellington told him.
Henderson didn’t know how long it would take him to help Ellington. He might not find a drama teacher before the end of the semester, 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 spotty in Holmes, but he had no idea how bad it was: When he surveyed the district’s families, he found that more than 75 percent of his students had no way to get online. Many teachers didn’t, either.
Like all impoverished school districts, Holmes receives federal money under a program called Title I. In a normal year, Holmes officials spend the extra $1,000 or so per student on tutors and teachers’ aides, but after the pandemic shuttered schools, Henderson reallocated some of those dollars to buy Chromebooks. By the end of March, he had passed out 1,300 tablets. He also turned six school buses into roving hot spots, but the infrastructure didn’t reach every family. The district had 3,000 students. Some families said they had several children competing to use one Chromebook, and each school bus hot spot broadcast only 100 feet, leaving much of the county without access.