Teachers, parents share concerns about how districts communicate COVID-19 cases

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

School buses are parked near Neshoba County Central Middle School during the school’s first day of class on Aug. 5, 2020.

When the Greenville Public School District opted in August for an all-virtual start because the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging Washington County, Superintendent Debra Dace wrote in the district’s return to school plan that the district “will always strive to make decisions that are in the best interest of students, staff and other stakeholders…”

But after multiple instances of being left in the dark about which students contracted the virus and a recent teacher’s death, at least one educator in the district told Mississippi Today her colleagues’ best interests are not being considered as promised.

The teacher in the district told Mississippi Today she learned someone in her building contracted the virus in late summer before classes began. It was announced on Facebook, but not directly communicated to the teachers in that building.

“Someone told me (that the district announced) it on Facebook, but I just don’t go on Facebook a lot,” the teacher told Mississippi Today. “So I did not know about it until someone shared it with me.”

Then on Nov. 3, a teacher in the Greenville School District died. A Facebook post from a family member said he died of COVID-19, but Mississippi Today was not able to confirm the cause of his death. Again, the district did not notify staff directly about this  but announced it on Facebook, the teacher said.

“That’s all I heard of. That’s it,” the Greenville teacher said.

One week later, the Greenville School District  announced it was moving all of its students back to virtual learning.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Mississippi spike for the third time this year, and many districts continue with traditional or hybrid learning, this is an issue playing out across the state.

While district officials say they are making decisions with student and teacher safety in mind, educators who spoke with Mississippi Today said they feel unsafe because no one is communicating to them when someone in the building contracts the virus, meaning they have no idea if they have been exposed and need to quarantine.

The teachers and parents Mississippi Today spoke with across the state for this article asked for anonymity over fear of retaliation from their local school districts. School administrators for the districts mentioned in this article — the Greenville Public School District, Cleveland Public School District and the Simpson County School District — refuted the allegations and said they were following proper channels of communication.

In the Cleveland School District, one parent said they were told this summer by the band director that their child would lose their spot if they did not attend band camp.

The child wound up contracting COVID-19, as did both of the student’s parents. One of the parents decided to let the band director know so she could communicate with other parents and help them be proactive about quarantining their children.

“I told her that my child was worried about losing their spot. She told me do not worry about it because they have had a few students who have been quarantined in the last couple weeks. I thought to myself, ‘Why haven’t the parents of this school district been alerted to this?’” the parent wrote in an email to Mississippi Today.

Later on in the school year, a different source close to the Cleveland School District said that administrators were not making teachers aware when they had been exposed. Instead, leaders were only sending lists to teachers of students who had to quarantine.

In the Simpson County School District, a teacher says that administrators are not telling teachers at all when they’ve been exposed to students who have contracted the coronavirus.

“Some of my students are currently out with COVID, and (school administrators) have not told anybody except for a very small handful of students that they may have been exposed,” the teacher told Mississippi Today. “We have older teachers who they haven’t been told, ‘Hey, you’ve been exposed to COVID.’ So really they’re just not telling any of the teachers.”

This teacher also reached out to the Mississippi State Department of Health to report what was happening, but was told it was up to the schools to decide who to tell when someone contracts the virus. This is in direct opposition to the guidelines set out by MSDH, which says districts must notify the group or school that a case of COVID-19 has been identified.

The Mississippi Department of Education has stated that all school districts are required to follow the  directives set out by MSDH, which say that anyone who comes into close contact with another person infected with the coronavirus should get tested and quarantine for 14 days, even if the test is negative.

If a teacher or staff member is deemed “essential” by the district but has been exposed to the virus, the teacher can keep working if they show no symptoms and have their symptoms and temperature monitored daily by the school, according to MSDH policy.

The health department policy also explicitly states that it is the district’s responsibility to notify the group or school that a case of COVID-19 was identified there.

“If that’s the policy, then the people who are answering phones at the health department don’t know it,” said the teacher in Simpson County.

In the Clarksdale Municipal School District, teachers said they hear “gossip” from co-workers, parents and students about the number of potential cases in their districts, but not from principals.

“There’s so much risk and no conversation about the risk at all. It’s scary,” a Clarksdale teacher said. “I feel pretty lucky I don’t have children I don’t bring this home to. I know that’s a position a lot of the teachers are in.”

Additionally, the Clarksdale teachers said they feel the district does not care about the safety and wellbeing of teachers and staff. The Clarksdale district has not provided personal protective equipment (PPE) since the start of school, they said. As a way to ensure their classroom is sanitized, they bought supplies using their own money or parents gave them wipes and sanitizers.

“It makes me feel really uneasy, and our administration (says) we are a team, yet that teamwork only extends to state testing priorities and not to teacher health or teacher wellbeing,” another Clarksdale teacher said.

Earl Joe Nelson, Jr., superintendent of the Clarksdale school district, said the district is “far from out” of PPE and makes weekly deliveries to the schools. He urged teachers to first contact their principals for concerns and guidelines from the CDC and MSDH. However, if they are dissatisfied, they can personally reach out to him, he said.

“Our goal isn’t to keep them in the dark … We have people overly concerned, and we also have people that don’t wanna (come to) work,” he said in a phone call with Mississippi Today. “If they need anything addressed, I would take full responsibility for this … and address the school right away.”

As a result of continued spread of the virus in schools, Nelson said two schools have closed in the district: Clarksdale High and George H. Oliver Elementary. Both were offering a hybrid model of learning but are now entirely virtual.

Having open lines of communication between school administration and teachers can alleviate the anxiety and fear they have, said Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators.

“We’ve said this over and over again, this is a matter of life or death,” Jones said. “Our educators are going into these buildings day in and day out. Let’s stop being so secretive of things … our educators should be afforded with information about district personnel as it comes to COVID.”

While many teachers are upset by the way their districts handle communication about the virus, some feel their school could be a model for how to do this properly.

In Prentiss County School District, for example, school staff are made aware when someone on campus has contracted COVID-19 and are told they will be contacted personally if they have been exposed to the virus.

“I absolutely agree and appreciate the way they are handing it. You want to know that it’s happening on your campus or around you,” said Alison Rausch, a teacher in Prentiss County School District.

Similarly, the Clinton Public School District regularly sends out press releases whenever someone in the district contracts the virus.

As of Nov. 10, data provided by MSDH shows a total of at least 7,127 teachers, students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of school.

This data is variable because it’s self-reported, and the number of schools that report varies from week to week. Many teachers also allege those statistics are inaccurate because school administrators aren’t truthfully reporting how many people in the school district actually became infected with the virus.

Teachers in those districts where school leaders aren’t communicating with them about campus infections say they feel like administrators don’t care at all about their wellbeing.

“It’s scary because I feel like we’re sitting ducks,” said the Greenville Public School teacher. “We’re just sitting here waiting to get this virus.”