So many students and teachers are contracting COVID-19 in the Lincoln County School District in the first weeks of fall classes that leaders transitioned two of their school systems to a hybrid schedule.
But the district remains one of just 15 in the state where mask-wearing is optional. Lincoln County Superintendent David Martin, in an interview, said he doesn’t believe masks are effective, so he “left the decision up to parents.”
Mississippi Today spoke with two teachers in the district — one of whom recently contracted COVID-19 and both of whom wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation. Their perspectives provide insight into what’s occurring inside mask-optional districts as more than 30,000 students across Mississippi are quarantined less than a month into the school year.
And their stories show how children and staff are not being kept safe in Lincoln County, where just 28% of residents are fully vaccinated.
“The system that Lincoln County schools have in place is broken,” one teacher said. “They are putting teachers, staff members and students at risk. And they are overworking the underpaid nurses on staff.”
Lincoln County is not the only school district in the state still not requiring masks in its schools. A Mississippi Today analysis shows it is joined by 14 other districts, including two of the state’s largest: DeSoto and Harrison counties. Several of those have already transitioned to virtual learning and hybrid schedules due to outbreaks, according to the districts’ websites.
Many districts began the school year without a mask requirement but quickly pivoted as cases and quarantines surged. Numerous studies show the effectiveness of mask-wearing in close quarters like classrooms, and countless medical experts, including the state’s major medical organizations, insist that mask-wearing in schools decreases the chances of COVID-19 transmission. New guidelines from the Mississippi Department of Health state close contacts in the school setting do not have to quarantine if both they and the infected person were wearing masks at the time of exposure.
Dr. Anita Henderson, the president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians, said not only do masks work, they help kids stay in school.
“Last year during the school year, most Mississippi schools were able to teach kids in-person because of universal masking within the school setting,” Henderson said. “This year, however, when school started with masks optional, we quickly saw the widespread transmission among children.”
The Lincoln County School District began the year without safety measures such as spacing in the cafeteria and in the carpool line and sanitizing desks between classes, one of the teachers said.
The teacher also recently tested positive for COVID-19, which she believes she got at school. She said she was not told to quarantine despite being exposed.
Martin, however, said the district is taking safety measures.
“We are following procedures and protocols for spacing, cleaning and quarantine,” Martin told Mississippi Today.
To add insult to injury, the teacher said she is burning through her own vacation and sick time because the Lincoln County school board elected not to offer employees additional COVID-19 related leave.
“It just feels like you’re being kicked while you’re down,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’ve been put in danger, and then I’ll be further punished because I’m going to lose all my sick and personal days, and more than likely my family members are going to get sick, then I’ll be off (work) even longer taking care of them.”
At the time the teacher spoke to Mississippi Today, her child had already begun showing symptoms but was unable to get tested because of a lack of testing availability in the area.
Gov. Tate Reeves earlier this month extended the state’s emergency order through Sept. 15. One of the effects of that decision was that it allowed school boards to continue offering employees paid COVID-19 leave. That way, if teachers or staff members test positive, they do not use up all of their personal leave and potentially have their pay docked.
Tim Cunningham, the Lincoln County school board president, declined to answer questions when reached by Mississippi Today. Martin, the superintendent, said he believes teachers are not receiving COVID leave due to a “financial decision” because the district does not have a large budget.
“We’ve got a smaller budget, we don’t have the tax base” that some other districts have, Martin said.
Some districts are using federal funding to offset the cost of administrative leave for employees. Lincoln County schools received $4.7 million in the most recent round of funding from the American Rescue Plan. In earlier iterations of federal COVID-19 relief funding, the district received roughly another $2.6 million.
DeSoto County School District, the largest district in the state and one of the 10 districts that still does not require masks, approved an additional eight days of paid leave for employees who test positive for COVID-19. All school-level employees have also received an additional four days of sick leave to use. In Enterprise, another mask-optional district, employees were granted seven days of COVID-related leave, Superintendent Josh Perkins said.
Two of Lincoln County’s kindergarten through 12th grade schools, Loyd Star and West Lincoln, have recently transitioned to a hybrid schedule because of COVID-19 cases and quarantine numbers. Martin recently told the Daily Leader that a totally virtual schedule was “not an option” for students in the district because students don’t have reliable internet access.
Martin also sent a letter to parents on Aug. 23 informing that the schools’ rapid testing supply was running low.
“Each school will have to stop offering testing once their supply runs low,” the letter stated. Enterprise Attendance Center announced on its Facebook page the school would not be performing rapid testing on students until further notice.
The district did not report COVID-19 data for any of its schools for the week ending Aug. 20, the most recent data available, so the data used to determine the move is unknown.
Martin said the district did submit the data to the Mississippi Department of Health, but it was after the deadline had passed. District-wide, 70 students and 9 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 last week, and 278 students and 10 staff members were quarantined, he said.
The district has around 2,700 students, according to the state education department.
School districts are required to report their COVID-19 data weekly to the state health department. Mississippi Department of Health officials said the department’s protocol is to call a school to make sure administrators know the process for reporting, but it does not enforce the requirement in practice.
Only 28% of Lincoln County residents are fully vaccinated, according to the state health department. A total of 119 people in the county have died from the virus as of Aug. 14.