Students wear masks while waiting in line for their food during the first day of school at Neshoba County Central Middle School on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

What a difference a year makes.

On Aug. 4 of last year, Gov. Tate Reeves issued a statewide mandate calling for mask-wearing in all school buildings. The executive order called masks “important not only to protect oneself, but also to avoid unknowingly harming our fellow Mississippians through asymptomatic community transmission of COVID-19” and “the key to reducing transmission of the virus.”

But this year, as mask-wearing in schools has become a hot-button political issue, the governor has changed his tune dramatically. He has described guidance from the Centers for Disease Control calling for everyone to wear masks amid the surge of the delta variant, particularly in under-vaccinated states like Mississippi, “foolish and harmful” and “not rational science.”

And despite calls for masks in schools from the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Mississippi State Medical Association, and the Mississippi Association of Educators, Reeves has passed the buck this year, leaving the decision up to school districts.

Mississippi hospitals, in one of the least vaccinated states in the nation, are being pushed to the brink dealing with patients who have COVID-19. Emergency rooms and intensive care units are full across the state as the delta variant targets people of all ages, and especially those who are unvaccinated. Many hospital administrators face staff shortages due to fatigue, frustration and fear.

Perhaps most concerning as schools go back into session is that as of Aug. 6, there were 20 children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health — a trend not seen during earlier spikes of the virus. Three of the 15 at Children’s of Mississippi in Jackson were in the intensive care unit.

Reeves, the only official with the power to enact a statewide mask mandate, has repeatedly stated he will not be issuing another one for schools this year. So as children across the state return to the classroom this month, school districts are developing their own policies as cases skyrocket higher than this time last year.

Pascagoula-Gautier School District Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich said his district became the first on the Gulf Coast to require all students and staff to wear masks in schools when the new year began on Aug. 5.

Rodolfich said while there might have been a lot of noise from community members and parents against a mask requirement, he did not let that affect his decision making.

“With my school board and leadership team and school level administrators, I look at what the safest option for all people will be and base it off that,” he said. He said he looked at numbers from last year and the local COVID-19 infection data, in addition to consulting with medical professionals from Singing River Health System.

In the days following Pascagoula-Gautier’s decision, Ocean Springs, Gulfport, Pass Christian, Biloxi, Hancock County and Long Beach schools all announced a mask mandate, the Sun Herald reported. 

However, Harrison County and Jackson County school districts are still making masks optional as of Aug. 6.

Jackson County’s website says unless mandated by law, students and staff members won’t be required to wear masks. It also described receiving the COVID-19 vaccine as a “personal/family choice.” 

No school district in Mississippi is requiring vaccines, though a member of the board for the Natchez-Adams School District said the board is considering the possibility of requiring eligible employees to be vaccinated.

Rodolfich, however, said he made a personal visit to all 19 schools in his district before the year began to meet with faculty and staff to encourage anyone who can to get a vaccine. The district will also be holding vaccination drives over the next month. 

In the metro area, Jackson Public Schools has said it will require masks in schools since developing its back-to-school plan at the beginning of the summer, and Clinton Public School District recently reversed course and said it will be changing its mask guidance from recommended to required. 

The district cited the CDC, state health department and the American Academy of Pediatricians in its decision. It will reassess the requirement by Sept. 10 to determine next steps, a press release stated.

“There is no doubt that our students learn best when inside our classrooms,” said Clinton Superintendent Andy Schoggin, noting that quarantine was a huge challenge last year. 

The most recent guidance, however, states that as long as everyone is masked, potentially exposed children or teachers do not have to quarantine and will be able to stay in the classroom. 

“Eliminating the need for quarantines in the classroom setting provides a great opportunity to continue to provide the academic and social opportunities our students need and deserve,” Schoggin said. 

Rankin and Madison County schools are both still making masks optional, according to their return-to-learning plans. 

Three parents in the Rankin County School District told Mississippi Today they have never received any communication from the district encouraging their students or teachers to get vaccinated. Multiple requests for comment from the Rankin County School District spokesperson and superintendent were not returned by Monday.

Madison County School District Superintendent Charlotte Seals wrote in a letter to families that she encouraged parents and children to take advantage of the vaccine if eligible.

In the northern part of the state, Oxford School District Superintendent Bradley Roberson said masks will be required in schools until Aug. 20.

“Unfortunately, in recent days we have learned from some of our district friends from around the state who have already started school that a normal return may not provide us with the best opportunity to keep kids in school,” he said in a video on the district’s website. “Our friends in Lamar County have been forced to transition Oak Grove High School as well as Purvis High School to virtual learning due to school outbreaks after less than 10 days of instruction. Bands from across the state have already been shut down due to outbreaks from band camps.”

Last year, Reeves cited keeping kids in school as the chief reason to implement the mask mandate.

“Here’s the bottom line: We have to balance the very real risk of the virus and the lifelong damage of school closures. To do that, we have to safely provide education for the greatest possible number of children,” Reeves said on Aug. 4, 2020.

Already this month, several public schools have gone back to the classroom and had to quickly halt in-person learning because of COVID outbreaks. The governor reiterated last week that masks are a choice that should be left up to the districts themselves.

"I believe that local school boards, the parents ought to be heard," Reeves told Tupelo-based WTVA last week. "They (school boards) ought to open the floor and give the parents a chance to talk to their school board members because they are the elected officials."

The lack of leadership from Reeves is leaving local politicians in a quandary and increasing the chances that COVID-19 will continue to overload the state’s hospital system.

Take what happened last week in Harrison County — one of Reeves’ political strongholds — where the county school board, overseeing the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s largest school district, was in an impossible situation.

Many Harrison County parents seemed to want the school board to issue a district-wide mask mandate, and others seemed vehemently opposed. Uncertain about what to do, the Harrison County school board opened the floor of their meeting to parents on Aug. 4 — just as Reeves suggested they do. 

Tempers flared. Emotions ran high. Conspiracy theories and misinformation were shared in a public forum. By the end of the meeting, the board voted 3-2 to not enact a mask mandate, leaving some attendees cheering and others weeping.

This time last year, Reeves' statewide order gave political cover to local school leaders — and, according to health care professionals, lessened the transmission of the coronavirus.

But with no statewide mandate this year, scenes like in Harrison County are playing out across the state, increasing the likelihood of quicker COVID-19 spread and terrifying many teachers, physicians and parents.

"You literally have our children’s lives in the palm of your hand," Harrison County parent Kristin Stachura Allen said at last week's board meeting. "The variant is affecting our children, and you are failing to protect every single one of them if you don’t put a mandate in place."

Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau contributed to this report.

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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.