Students participate in class during the first day of school at Neshoba County Central Middle School on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The state’s teachers union is calling on Gov. Tate Reeves to mandate masks in schools in the fall.

The Mississippi Association of Educators cited the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, the state’s low vaccination rate and reports of children with the virus in the intensive care unit in a letter to Reeves on Monday.

Reeves said recently he will not be issuing any mask mandates and has announced Mississippi’s COVID-19 State of Emergency will end on Aug. 15. Most schools are set to begin the new school year in early to mid-August. 

The group’s letter coincided with the report of 3,608 new cases over a three-day period, and recent new infections trending similarly to a year ago.

Though the understanding of COVID-19 has evolved over the course of the pandemic, “one thing has never changed: Masks work, and they are a simple and effective way to help prevent the spread of this disease,” the letter states. 

Reeves doubled down on his decision on Monday afternoon.

“Governor Reeves has no intention of requiring students and staff to wear masks when they’re in school this fall,” Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for Reeves, said.  

While governors in states with low vaccination rates like Alabama and Arkansas have been speaking up urging people to get vaccinated, Reeves has been mostly quiet. It’s been months since he held a COVID-19 specific press conference, and while he said in a recent statement he encourages Mississippians to get vaccinated, he said he respects people’s “right to make that choice” of not getting the vaccine.

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The teachers’ group said that the Mississippi Department of Health’s current policy advising unvaccinated individuals to wear masks doesn’t make sense in the school setting.

“It is imperative that schools see state-led intervention beyond advising mask wear among unvaccinated students and educators. This policy has the potential to create more problems than it solves: How will we determine who is and is not vaccinated? Are there repercussions for lying about vaccination status or choosing not to wear a mask if you are unvaccinated? Who is responsible for confirming a student’s vaccination status?” the letter said. “Simply put: It is unfair to ask educators to become their school’s vaccination police when putting on a mask will help keep the entire school community safe and healthy.”

The Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics released a letter to school officials last week recommending everyone wear masks in schools for many of the same reasons that the Mississippi Association of Educators cites. 

A separate teacher group, the Mississippi Professional Educators, wrote in a newsletter Friday that many of its members had questions about vaccine requirements.

“We have received several inquiries from members as to if a district may ask if an employee has received the COVID-19 vaccination. Our attorney has advised that a district may ask if an employee has received the vaccine and may ask for proof of vaccination.”

Some school districts, such as Jackson Public Schools and West Tallahatchie School District, will be requiring everyone to wear masks when the year begins. 

But many of the larger districts, including Madison, Rankin, Clinton, DeSoto and those on the Gulf Coast, are currently making masks optional. 

The Mississippi Association of Educators is hosting a Facebook event Monday at 5:30 p.m. with MAE President Erica Jones, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, and State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers.

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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.