A group of DeSoto County School District parents who are also physicians say their district — the largest in Mississippi — has ignored their advice on COVID-19 policies and has not been transparent or inclusive in setting its protocols, which include no mask requirement for students and teachers.

These doctors mostly work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The hospital treats children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases — the very conditions that make them more susceptible to severe illness and outcomes from COVID-19. 

As parents, they say they are seeing the effects of the district’s choices in their own homes.

Dr. Jessica Gartrell is a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric hematologist/oncologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Credit: Jessica Gartrell

Dr. Jessica Gartrell spoke with Mississippi Today while her kindergartener and third grader were home sick with COVID-19. 

“My 5-year-old is very sick. He has high fever, he’s shaking like crazy, curled up in the fetal position — he’s miserable,” said Gartrell, a board certified pediatrician and pediatric hematologist/oncologist.

As a doctor, she knows the risk for severe outcomes if a child contracts COVID-19: hospitalization, pneumonia, and Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C), a serious and sometimes fatal condition in children that usually occurs four to six weeks after COVID infection.

But DeSoto County remains one of only 16 districts in the state that does not currently require masks in school buildings.

The district said in an emailed statement to Mississippi Today that it considered advice from medical professionals in developing its protocols for the school year and received inconsistent medical guidance and “different viewpoints.”

But when asked which medical professionals provided guidance that differs from recommendations by the Mississippi State Department of Health and other major medical groups in the state, district officials wouldn’t name them. Superintendent Cory Uselton referred the question to school board attorney Jim Keith. 

Keith said the district took into consideration input from community members via its dedicated COVID-19 email address. Some of that input was from doctors and other health care professionals in the community, he said. 

“(Some of those doctors) don’t want to be on the forefront, they just simply provided their input and said, ‘School district, you make the decision,’” Keith said. 

This year, Gov. Tate Reeves did not issue a mask mandate in schools as he did last year. This meant the decision, which has become a contentious political hot potato, was tossed into the laps of superintendents and school board members.

Gartrell, along with fellow parents and St. Jude physicians Drs. Matthew Rees and Michael McNeil, also want to know who these medical professionals are. 

“The pediatrics community in northern Mississippi has a unified voice on this (masking). This is what works: wearing masks when you can’t be socially distanced and getting vaccinated if you’re able,” said McNeil, a pediatrician and pediatric hematology-oncology fellow at St. Jude. “The district keeps saying, ‘There are a lot of opinions on both sides,’ but what we are recommending is based on evidence. That is not opinion.”

Dr. Desh Sidhu, a pediatrician and a board member of the state’s pediatrician association, has been practicing in the DeSoto County area for more than 40 years. He says he has tried repeatedly to talk to the superintendent and other district officials to no avail. 

He even offered to provide vaccinations for eligible students in the schools. 

“All the district would need to do is get permission from the parents and we will take care of everything else — the logistics, the paperwork, the staff, everything,” Sidhu said. “But we have just met a dead end.”

The district said it has held no vaccination drives or events to date. 

As a mother, Gartrell is heartbroken by the position she finds herself in. In an effort to keep her 3-year-old daughter and herself safe, she can’t care for her ill 5-year-old the way she wants.

“I want to hold him and take care of him and love on him. Instead I’m going in with a mask, a face shield and keeping my distance,” she said. “And I’m scared.” 

She said while she believes teachers and nurses are doing their best, their hands are tied by district policy. When her older son started running fever at school and complaining of a sore throat, he was sent back to class after a second thermometer showed he didn’t have fever — despite earlier high temperature readings, Gartrell said.

While her son wears a mask in school per her and her husband’s wishes, he went out to recess unmasked and played football with other children. By the time he was standing in the car rider line, his temperature had spiked to nearly 103 degrees, his mom said.

Despite a positive result from an at-home test, Gartrell said, she was told they could only accept a result from an in-office test, which she wasn’t able to get until days later amid a nationwide shortage of rapid tests and a spike in testing throughout the state.

“I was told they were not allowed to accept an at-home test and urged me that as soon as I could get the in-office test to notify them immediately as he had potentially exposed other children,” she said. 

Keith, the school board attorney, said he advised the district not to accept results from any at-home tests because the school does not know the fidelity with which the test was administered or the accuracy of the test used.  

Gartrell and several other pediatricians who spoke to Mississippi Today said this policy needs to be reconsidered as potentially exposed children are not being quarantined in real time.

“While a negative result on a home test does not rule out a COVID infection, they are very reliable when they show a positive result. Especially with the shortage of rapid tests, this policy should be revisited,” she said. 

Gartrell is one of several doctors in the area who have been reaching out to the school district and school board members for more than a month. The district set up a COVID-specific email address to receive feedback from parents, so Gartrell and others began directing their questions and concerns there before the school year began. 

Dr. Matthew Rees, a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric hematology/oncology fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Credit: Matthew Rees

Rees, a pediatric hematology/oncology fellow at St. Jude, is a parent of four children, three of which attend schools in the district. He also spoke to Mississippi Today after his daughter tested positive for the virus which then spread to his other daughter, his wife and him.

While the children have fared well, Rees, who has type 1 diabetes, was riddled by body aches, sore throat, congestion and a cough for five days and unable to do much in the way of work or caretaking. His wife recently had to take a trip to the emergency room after experiencing chest pain, and despite improvement after two weeks, she is still not back to “full speed,” he said.

“One common thing people say is, ‘Kids don’t get COVID and don’t spread it,’ but I would beg to differ,” he said.

Rees said he started reaching out via the district’s COVID email address and through one of his children’s principals in July when it became apparent there would be no statewide mask mandate or requirements in schools. He even offered to help create the district’s COVID-19 response plan and coordinate a question and answer session with parents.

He received a boilerplate response telling him his feedback was received and the district would be releasing its back-to-school plan soon. 

When he saw the plan, he was shocked.

“The only thing it said about masking was one paragraph hidden in the middle of it, which started out with, ‘There will be no mask mandate,’” he said. It did not mention vaccinations other than detailing when unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals must be tested and quarantined, per state health department guidelines.

It continued to list protocols such as cleaning procedures, social distancing and the replacement of water fountains with bottled water stations. 

“I wrote back and said it baffles me that the best interventions we possibly have barely even get mentioned … while we’re at the same time making plans, investing resources in replacing water fountains,” Rees said. “Why not also use the things that are going to have a much bigger impact?” 

Officials with the DeSoto County School District said the new plan was created by Assistant Superintendent Lucy Hasselman. 

“Feedback from the COVID-19 email address was considered, and the document was reviewed by school administrators and members of the Central Services staff before it was recommended to the school board,” the district said in an email.

Hernando High School and Lewisburg Middle School are currently operating entirely virtually due to COVID-19 infections and quarantine numbers. Lewisburg, which transitioned to virtual learning on Thursday of last week, had 53 students test positive for the virus last week. Nearly 300 were quarantined, Mississippi State Department of Health data shows

The high school transitioned to virtual learning on Aug. 17 before transitioning to a mixture of in-person and virtual learning on Aug. 25. Eighty-six students at the high school have tested positive for COVID-19 since school began on Aug. 5.

Dr. Michael McNeil, a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric hematology/oncology fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Credit: Michael McNeil

McNeil is also a pediatric hematology-oncology fellow at St. Jude and the father of three kids, two of which are in the district. When he has attempted to talk to district officials, he’s been met with “radio silence.”

He says he’s operating with a daily sense of dread, knowing that it’s “only a matter of time” before his children get the virus.

“My fourth grader and kindergartener are one of the few kids in their classes with masks on,” he said. 

He says the experience of trying to work with the district has been frustrating on many levels. 

“If you want to ignore my medical training and my experience and the evidence, that’s one thing,” said McNeil. “But when you ignore me as a parent, that’s a whole other thing.”

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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.