Gov. Tate Reeves and Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs speak to the media about the coronavirus during a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Going against the advice of the state’s top health officer and other Mississippi medical experts, Gov. Tate Reeves on Tuesday announced admittedly “piecemeal” orders that allow most schools to reopen now even as the state sees record numbers of COVID-19 cases.

“I believe in my heart we have got to get our kids back in school,” Reeves said, and reiterated a recent theme: “I believe it’s better, whenever possible, to allow local leaders to determine plans for their schools.”

Reeves is issuing an executive order to “pump the brakes” for grades seven through 12 in eight COVID-19 “hot spot” counties. The schools in Bolivar, Coahoma, Forrest, George, Hinds, Panola, Sunflower and Washington counties are affected by the executive order, which pushes their start date to Aug. 17.

The order only applies to public schools, and schools that are already slated to reopen virtually can do so. Reeves’ order will require students and staff to wear masks in all schools and he also issued a statewide mask mandate — previously only 37 of 82 counties were under a mask mandate.

A Mississippi Today analysis shows the executive order affects less than 7% of students in the public school system, based on enrollment data from the 2019-20 school year. Many districts in these counties are already planning on a virtual opening or later start date.

The announcement comes as some schools in Mississippi have already reopened traditionally, and the state’s top health officials have come out publicly advocating for the governor to delay the return to the classroom.

“The governor’s plan, in its current form, is reckless and irresponsible,” said Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, which has asked to delay schools opening until at least Sept. 1. “It ignores the advice of the state’s top medical officials and is putting students and educators and their families at risk.”

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs last week had joined a chorus of other health officials and groups calling for Reeves to delay in-person schooling until early September. Dobbs had called earlier reopening, “crazy,” and said, “There’s nothing magic about August.”

[Mississippi teacher’s death during first week of school stokes COVID-19 outbreak fears]

On Tuesday, as he sat with Reeves at a press conference, he was less emphatic and said, “Let’s just behave for a couple of weeks. Our kids have got to get back to school.”

But Dobbs on Tuesday also said, “Quite honestly I believe some of the (schools’) plans could use a lot of work.”

School districts had to choose between in-person, virtual, or hybrid reopenings and submit plans to the Mississippi Department of Education by July 31. Reeves, who is the only person with the authority to delay school at the statewide level, said he spent the last few days reading 598 pages of reopening plans which led him to believe there was cause for an executive order.

“There will be plenty of time for Monday-morning quarterbacking,” Reeves said as he bristled at some media questions Tuesday. “My decisions are in real-time, based on what I think is best for the state of Mississippi.”

The governor acknowledged there was risk in this decision.

“Are there risks? Sure there are. I’m aware of those risks and still believe this is the best decision for our state.”

More than 465,000 children attend public schools in Mississippi, and more than 30,000 teachers and thousands of other staff are in the building with them each day.

Aliyah Shivers teaches fourth grade at Booker T. Washington Elementary in Clarksdale Municipal School District. She is also a parent to two toddler boys and thinks the governor should delay reopening all schools.

“Even though we’re virtual, the teacher may end up going in the classroom, so I’m forced to take my kids to daycare and they’re at risk to bring it back home,” Shivers said Tuesday. “(Reeves says) kids don’t carry the virus as much as adults, but they still can get it and bring it home. It’s just not safe.”

Mississippi’s statistics are not comforting either — Mississippi currently has the highest COVID-19 positivity rate in the country and the third-highest daily new case rate. Hospitalizations for the virus continue to rise, and the daily patient rolls nearly doubled in the past month.

“The numbers are constantly rising,” Shivers said. “I don’t see them going down anytime soon and I don’t see us trying to control it and we expect the kids to wear a mask and keep their hands clean and stay away from their friends?”

“Today I was really hoping (Reeves) would say we’re going to go to school virtually all over the state until we start seeing a major decrease in the cases,”

Trent Chess teaches at Coahoma Early College High School. He thinks districts should go virtual for the first nine weeks of school to give the state time for cases to decline.

“I just really think it’s crazy and it’s very risky,” to return to in-person schooling right now, he said. “I think we’re seeing more and more cases and more and more deaths associated with it and we just really don’t need to expose the children any more or us (as educators) any more than what we’re already exposed.”

In Bolivar County, the Cleveland School District has already delayed its hybrid start date to Sept. 8. Parent Latoya Shepard has two children enrolled in the district, and on Tuesday called the governor’s decision “pompous, arrogant and heartless.” Though she understands the governor is doing the best he can, she’d really hoped he would announce an all-virtual return to school until the state started seeing its case level drop, she said.

“My heart goes out to every parent in this state because we don’t know what we’re sending our children into,” she said.

“They have a fire drill, they have a drill for an active shooter is on the campus,” she said. “They have all of these drills, but what are you going to do when a child – are you waiting on a child to die in the district? That is my concern. When is he going to do something?”

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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.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.

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.

Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.