Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

As infections continue to increase and in some cases hospitalize children, Mississippi schools are grappling with what COVID-19 restrictions, if any, should be made for the upcoming school year.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs recently expressed his concerns about a “surge of cases in kids” as a result of the spread of the Delta variant. This week seven minors were hospitalized after becoming infected with the variant, and the state on Wednesday saw its highest single-day caseload since March.

Gov. Tate Reeves has signaled he will not be issuing any mandates around masks or other COVID-19 protocols in schools, so Mississippi districts are left to grapple with what restrictions to put in place in a state where only 31% of the population is vaccinated. Of that, just 6% of children ages 12-15 and 12% of kids ages 16-17 are fully vaccinated, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

At the same time, the Mississippi State Board of Education on Thursday passed a policy stating schools must return to in-person learning as the primary mode of learning in the 2021-2022 school year. The board also approved policies outlining how the district can offer school- or district-wide virtual instruction during a COVID-19 outbreak, weather event or other situation, and outlined requirements for students who are learning virtually due to a medical condition or other reason.

This is a stark difference from last summer, when there was speculation about whether the governor would delay the start of the school year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In August 2020, days before the school year was slated to start in many public school districts, Reeves issued an executive order that mandated masks be worn in schools and allowed most to reopen as planned except in eight counties deemed COVID hot spots.

The Mississippi Department of Health required districts to report COVID infection data to the state on a weekly basis during the school year, and though not every district complied each week, the last report showed at least 6,083 students, teachers and staff contracted the virus in 2021. In any given week during the school year, thousands of students and teachers were forced to quarantine because of exposure to the virus.

Reader survey: COVID-19 vaccines and schools

This year there are no delayed start dates or mask mandate, and recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control urge schools to fully reopen. The CDC also recommends that unvaccinated individuals and children under 12 should continue wearing masks. Schools should also try to make sure people stay at least three feet apart when possible, the guidelines say.

Jim Keith, a school board attorney for more than 20 Mississippi school districts, said he is hearing from most superintendents that they will not be requiring masks for students and teachers but instead recommending them for unvaccinated individuals. He said he is also hearing debate about requiring students who participate in extracurricular activities to be vaccinated.

Keith said schools are feeling the pressure from parents.

“We’ve already got parents coming to board meetings on one end saying ‘You better not require masks,’ and others saying, ‘If you don’t require masks and you’ve got an unvaccinated employee that exposes my child, I’m going to be really upset,’” said Keith.

Erica Jones, the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said while teachers are excited to be returning to school buildings in the fall, some are still apprehensive about the lack of a mask mandate given recent news.

“Educators and students deserve to teach and learn in a safe setting without fearing for their health or the health of their families,” Jones said in a statement. “It is our hope that district and state leaders will take these fears into account, heed the warnings of medical professionals about the more dangerous and easily transmissible Delta variant, and prioritize the safety of students and educators.”

In the Gulfport School District, masks are currently “encouraged but not required.” Superintendent Glen East emphasized that it is an evolving situation and they continue to work with medical professionals in the district on masks and vaccines. The district is also offering vaccines to students at an event this Friday.

“You have to be concerned (about the Delta variant),” East said. “But my bigger fear is that there seems to be a wave of indifference across the country, where folks are waiting longer to make decisions than March a year ago. That little bit of indifference seems to be slowing us down.”

However, East elaborated, “We’re making decisions slower than when all this started, but maybe with a little more wisdom as well.”

Some schools, like those in the capital city, will require masks, according to the Jackson Public School District’s “Return to Learn” plan. It also highlights other measures like providing opportunities for faculty and staff to be vaccinated, increased hand washing and isolation rooms for sick children waiting to leave school.

JPS Superintendent Errick Greene also wrote a letter to the district in June stating administrators have created a dashboard to track COVID-19 cases in the schools.

In Laurel School District, Superintendent Toy Watts said she is “leaning toward” a mask requirement for the fall.

Watts said it’s “very clear” masks work in preventing the spread of COVID-19. A recent study by ABC Science Collaborative, in conjunction with Duke University, showed mask-wearing reduced the transmission of COVID-19 in North Carolina Schools.

“We know how important it is to keep kids in front of their teachers,” she said. “We’re going to make sure we take measures to keep children and teachers in the building.”

Clinton, Madison and DeSoto County School Districts have all issued guidelines making masks optional.

“The superintendent may require masks for all faculty, staff and students if local health data dictates a need to do so,” Clinton’s guidelines state.

State epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said last week the Department of Health will be issuing “Mississippi-specific” components of the new CDC guidance for schools, but it is unclear when.

Byers made a presentation to superintendents at their annual conference on the Gulf Coast this week about how to handle masks, testing and all things COVID-19 in the 2021-22 school year.

Byers highlighted important practices for districts to use in the fall to keep schools safe: mask wearing for unvaccinated people; screening testing when someone has been exposed to COVID-19; proper ventilation; hand washing and respiratory etiquette; staying home while sick and getting tested; contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation; and finally, cleaning and disinfection.

He also told school officials that fully vaccinated students and staff are not required to quarantine or be tested after coming in contact with an infected person.

But for those who are unvaccinated and are exposed to a positive individual, the unvaccinated person can stay in school if he or she submits to testing every two days for a seven-day period and does not develop any symptoms.

He also said schools should encourage students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated, as “vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic” and is “one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely reopen full operations,” his presentation stated.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.

Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.