Donesha Baker waits with second graders heading to their classroom after activities at Pearman Elementary. Students attended the first day of classes in the Cleveland School District on Monday, August 9, 2021. Masks for students and staffers is mandatory. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi Association of Educators and the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians are asking Gov. Tate Reeves to issue a mask mandate in schools.

The plea comes amid record-high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this week, in addition to an announcement from the University of Mississippi Medical Center that it is constructing a field hospital in a parking garage to increase capacity.

“We are in the midst of a statewide crisis, and while we would typically defer to local officials knowing their communities’ specific needs better than anyone – we can all agree this situation is markedly different,” the statement read.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

But as Reeves announced he would extend the state of emergency for another 30 days, he also doubled down against any mask requirements: “There will be no lockdowns and there will be no statewide mandates.”

Hospital leaders emphasized Wednesday if the current trajectory of new cases and hospitalizations continues, “we’re going to see failure of the hospital system in Mississippi,” said Dr. Alan Jones, UMMC associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs.

There were 26 children hospitalized with COVID-19 at the hospital on Wednesday. The number dropped to 19 as of Thursday morning. Since the school year began, 1,338 students, staff and teachers have tested positive for the virus and 4,817 are in quarantine, according to the state Department of Health.

The teacher and pediatrician groups cited the stress on the hospital system and keeping children in school as evidence of the need for a mask mandate.

“Educators are happy and relieved to be back in our classrooms, but we are wary of being driven from them again. Without meaningful statewide guidance, school districts have been left to fend for themselves,” the statement reads. “District leaders are scrambling to implement measures to stop the spread of COVID while trying to placate irate parents on both sides of the masking issue with no support.”

READ MORE: Which school districts are requiring masks?

The groups cite Lamar County School District where, as of Monday, nine of 19 schools have been forced to move to virtual learning and the entire district has transitioned to hybrid instruction because of COVID-19 cases.

On Wednesday, elementary schools in George and Greene County School Districts were forced to transition to virtual learning until Aug. 20 due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases. Stone High School in Stone County also transitioned to virtual learning for a two-week period, the Sun Herald reported.

South Hancock Elementary School closed the day before.

In the metro area, two school districts quickly pivoted after just several days of school to requiring mask-wearing. Rankin County School District reported 191 students with COVID-19 on Tuesday, the third day of school. Thirty-nine staff members were positive as of the same day, and nearly 500 students and staff were quarantined.

“Educators, medical professionals, parents, state leaders – we all want kids in classrooms. But if our priority is to safely keep our students in schools, we need to do what we can to mitigate the spread of COVID. It’s that simple.”

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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.