Esther Newell protests outside of the Capitol in Jackson on Friday, July 17, 2020.

The blunt question, posed by a public school teacher at a rally Friday morning, echoed outside the Mississippi Capitol: “How many children need to die before you take action?”

The teacher, Max Vanlandingham, and dozens of fellow educators, parents and their supporters gathered outside the Capitol on Friday morning to urge state and school leaders not to make what they called a “selfish, foolish and dangerous” decision to reopen schools this fall before it is safe to do so.

The group, called Mississippi Teachers Unite, asked leaders for several things on Friday: Postpone reopening schools until Sept. 1; ensure schools can meet current Centers for Disease Control safety guidelines and to disallow schools to conduct in-person classes until those needs are met; and fully fund public schools so districts can purchase the supplies needed to restart school safely.

The rally comes as coronavirus statistics in the state are spiking. This week provided Mississippi highest rolling average of new cases. Several days this week, the state broke single day records of confirmed positive cases. Coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations are spiking, as well.

The Department of Education has offered three options for school districts thus far: traditional in-person schooling, virtual learning, or a combination of the two. Districts must decide for themselves and post the information publicly by the end of the month.

Though not every district has a plan yet, several are planning on a traditional in-person return to school, according to Mississippi First, a non-profit organization tracking each district’s plans.

Most, if not all, attendees at the rally wore masks and took turns chanting phrases like  “Too soon for classrooms!” as they circled the Capitol and performed a demonstration of what a socially distant classroom would look like.

Chandler Rogers, a 17-year-old high school student from Rosedale, said the conditions at his school in the West Bolivar School District are not set up to ensure people can be safe and socially distant. He worries about returning to school and the responsibility he would bear if he caught the virus and infected people. His mother has late stage breast cancer, he said, and, “If I get it and take it to her, she could possibly die.”

“I’m not trying to worry about am I finna die, am I finna kill somebody, or is people that I love gonna make it?” Rogers said.

Lynne Schneider is a high school teacher who just started dialysis six weeks ago, and she worries what could happen once she’s back in the classroom with students again.

“I don’t want to die of a stupid reason, of a preventable reason,” Schneider said. “If there was ever a time for teachers to have a voice and not be afraid to use that voice, it’s now.”

Friday’s rally is just one instance in which educators are speaking up about their concerns. Mississippi Association of Educators President Erica Jones, who attended Friday’s rally, wrote a letter to the governor, state superintendent and state board of education members this week, requesting that the start of school be delayed and protocols put in place surrounding mask and safety requirements. She also advocated for waiving state testing and accountability requirements for the upcoming school year.

“While it has been our hope that school buildings could open in a few short weeks, it has become abundantly clear that we are in no position to proceed as planned,” Jones wrote. “We cannot, and should not, rush back into buildings simply to comply with the current calendared start date when students’ and educators’ health and safety are at risk.”

Separately, a group signed “Mississippi Teachers” wrote an open letter to the governor reiterating the rally demands, requesting that school opening be delayed until at least Labor Day and the Legislature fully fund schools.

The past several days, Mississippi Today has spoken with teachers across the state to learn more about their concerns with returning to the classroom.

Erica Scott is a Spanish teacher at Ocean Springs High School. She said she felt the district communicated effectively since schools physically closed in March, but she is concerned about the safety and health of her students, her colleagues and her own children when school returns.

“What about the teachers, you know? Students have an option for virtual academy, but I have four children. If I’m exposed to COVID-19 and I expose it to my four children … it puts us in a bad position because no one wants to get sick,” she said.

With the addition of masks and social distancing, Scott was unsure of how teaching and learning would look in a foreign language classroom.

“At the high school, we have 1,900 students,” she said. “My classes are filled with 30 students but its not a huge classroom like a lecture hall… it’s a lot of speaking, a lot of talking, a lot of rolling of the R that’s going on, and I want to make sure I hear them clearly, but that won’t be the main focus. I want them to get what they need.”

Alison Rausch, a middle school special education teacher in Prentiss County Schools, said whatever option is best for the students is best for her. However, she is uncertain on the district’s plan when the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

“We’ve been told we will start back on our original schedule a couple of weeks ago, but if the numbers continue to increase, I do not know if that will be modified,” she said. “As we start to approach coming back in August, I’m a little anxious. My classroom is actually really small so I work with anywhere from 11 to 14 kids. We’re really waiting on general education teachers to finish their lesson plans and their things so we can prepare for our students. Just a lot of unknowns that always makes you anxious.”

Micalya Tatum, a middle school teacher in the Vicksburg-Warren School District, echoed the comments of Rausch and Scott, saying children or teachers getting sick or potentially dying is “unacceptable” and a “big risk.” Aside from health and safety concerns, Tatum said, more resources around distance learning, training, and PPE are needed from a federal and state level.

“All of these districts have plans to do X,Y,Z, but at the end of the day, we don’t know what is going to happen,” Tatum said. “We need that funding to make sure we’re safe, for internet resources… We need to make sure we have the money to be able to support families. I think Vicksburg did a great job of supporting families, but I know overall not everyone in the state has access to resources.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.