As the new school year begins and the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic rips through Mississippi, many teachers are concerned about how schools are handling the pandemic and feel the need for comprehensive mandates at the state level.
“I am just kind of confused about the whole situation (compared to last year),” said Max Vanlandingham, a teacher at Northwest Rankin High School. “More people are coming back positive, and we’re taking fewer precautions.”
When Rankin County began school on Aug. 6, masks were optional. When discussing that policy on the second day of school, Vanlandingham said, “I would like to think that Rankin County would reverse their stance if things continue to get worse. I have faith that they will.”
Within the hour, Rankin County School District announced a mask mandate through Aug. 25.
Gov. Tate Reeves has said repeatedly he has no intention of enacting a statewide mask mandate, or a mask mandate for schools, leaving individual school districts to make these mask decisions on their own. Several Mississippi districts still have not implemented a mask mandate, even after medical and education groups have called for them. The result is inconsistent policies that may not be protecting children or the educators serving them.
And educators are back in classrooms as more children than ever are becoming infected with the virus. Across the nation, reports of children becoming seriously ill or dying are rolling in. Just last week, a Mississippi eighth grader died just days after testing positive for COVID.
At least five children have died of COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic in Mississippi, according to Mississippi State Department of Health officials.
“We’re going to lose more kids,” said State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs. “It’s just going to happen.”
Hannah Gadd Ardrey, a teacher at Lafayette High School and Mississippi’s 2019-20 teacher of the year, said it has felt like everyone is rushing to get prepared the last few weeks. “We’re just trying to stay afloat because things change every day, so we’re just doing the best we can to keep up with those changes.”
When Mississippi Today spoke with Gadd Ardrey, the Lafayette County School District had an optional masking policy. Teachers could individually enforce a masking policy in their classroom. Later that afternoon, Lafayette County implemented a mask mandate on buses and for all students and staff at the high school through Aug. 20.
“I’m pretty much the same amount of worried that I was last year because the subject that I teach — choir — is kind of a superspreader. I am taking responsibility for my students and myself in my classroom, making sure that we distance and mask… I’m worried about students being safe and being healthy, but as long as they are in my classroom, they are going to get both of those.”
Gadd Ardrey said as of Aug. 11, 25% of her largest class was out on quarantine.
“Teachers are doing their best. Students are doing their best. Administrators are doing their best,” Gadd Ardrey said. “This is just the beginning. Even though we’ve been dealing with COVID for 18 months, it still feels like we’re at the beginning of a very long road.”
So far, at least 1,338 students, staff and teachers have tested positive for the virus and 4,817 are in quarantine as of Aug. 6, according to the state Department of Health. For reference, in the first week MSDH reported data in August 2020, schools reported just 897 positive cases.
These figures have reignited concern among teachers about having to use personal or medical leave days if they are required to quarantine. The federal government had initially required schools to provide teachers with up to 10 quarantine days, but that protection expired. Now, districts have the option to provide teachers with paid administrative leave as long as the emergency order remains in place.
So far, Mississippi Today has not learned of any districts that are currently offering that administrative leave.
“I just feel like if you’re vaccinated and you’re wearing your mask and you’re doing the precautions, your pay shouldn’t get docked for something that is completely out of your control,” said Cagney Weaver, a teacher at Biloxi Upper Elementary. “I think that’s something that I think our governor really needs to step in and do something about.”
Weaver pointed out that the majority of the teachers in our state are female, and statistically a woman is more likely to stay home with sick children. She emphasized that teachers are even more likely to need quarantine days, particularly as the delta variant is more infectious for children.
In DeSoto County, Megan Jordan of Chickasaw Elementary ended up using all 10 of her quarantine days last school year despite never having COVID-19, just waiting on her results.
“We’ve been here four days, and we’ve already had three teachers and one teacher’s assistant out, just in the second grade,” Jordan said. “At this rate, they’re going to run out of sick days before the end of the first nine weeks.”
Jordan said the fact that her students are not old enough to get vaccinated is a point of anxiety. Her school has already switched to having staff meetings virtually and made “Meet the Teacher Night” a virtual event. She said around 10% of the students in her school are wearing masks regularly.
Weaver feels that things are going well in Biloxi since they started the year with a mask mandate, a variety of safety measures are in place, and the district is organizing vaccine drives. However, she understands that they cannot control what happens outside of school, saying “it’s definitely not an if, it’s definitely a when” in terms of students testing positive.
“I really think a mask mandate would help slow the spread and keep school functioning normally,” Weaver said. “We have children in the ICU now. The game has changed, and I wish people would step up their game a little bit.”