"My heart is pounding," said a nervous Percy Jenkins, as he blocked the first attempt to be vaccinated. Jenkins and a few co-workers were brought by their boss to a free vaccination event held at New Horizon Church International in partnership with the Mississippi State Department of Health, Wednesday, August 4, 2021 in Jackson. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were available to those 12 years of age and older. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Several school districts in Mississippi have plans in place to use federal stimulus funds to offer up to $1,000 for teachers and staff members who get vaccinated against COVID-19, but the Mississippi Department of Education is advising them to press pause.

Although the U.S. Department of Education and the state auditor’s office agree that monies from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund can be used by schools to incentivize both students and employees to get vaccinated, the department has not yet given districts the go-ahead, MDE spokesperson Jean Cook said. 

Cook declined to say what further guidance or information the department needed. 

The Biloxi Public School District has rolled out a plan to pay $1,000 to staffers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 8. The plan is for the payments to go out in December, Biloxi Superintendent Marcus Boudreaux said. 

“We’ve felt confident it would be approved ultimately, so we’re just operating as if it will be,” Boudreaux said when asked if the hold-up from MDE has made implementing the plan more difficult. 

Boudreaux said he also sees vaccination as a cost-saving measure.

Current health guidelines dictate unvaccinated individuals must quarantine after coming in close contact with a person who has COVID. Vaccinated individuals, however, do not have to quarantine after being potentially exposed.

The district has held six drives since the vaccines were first available to the public, and at those drives, over 500 of Biloxi’s 850 employees have been vaccinated. 

“It will hopefully save me on substitute teacher costs and wasting instructional time and the time of assistant teachers — not to mention the loss of instruction,” he said.  

Biloxi, like several other districts across the state, is facing a major shortage of available substitute teachers to cover classes for teachers who are out sick with COVID-19 or quarantined, in addition to non-pandemic related absences.

“We’re using certified staff a lot on their planning time to cover other teachers’ classes. I’ve got principals and assistant principals sitting in classrooms,” said Boudreaux. “We’re having to cover for each other. We’re hoping with the incentive the more people that get vaccinated, the better off we’re going to be for fighting the virus.”

A Starkville teacher told Mississippi Today that due to a shortage of substitute teachers last week, entire classes were sitting in the bleachers in the gymnasium because no one was there to teach. 

In the Yazoo County School District, the board increased the pay for substitute teachers in an attempt to better attract and retain them. For teachers without a degree, the pay increased from $55 per day to $90 per day. For those with degrees, the pay went from $70 a day to $150 a day.

The Kosciusko School District is planning a similar program, according to its director of federal programs Corrie Ramage. Employees have until Oct. 15 to be fully vaccinated in order to receive a payment of anywhere from $750 to $1,000, said Ramage.

Ramage said the district is doing everything it can not to repeat what happened last year when several staff members died from the virus. There was also a student from the district in the intensive care unit with COVID-19, and the town has lost several community members over the past three months. 

“We’re hoping this will keep us in school longer,” she said. “We’re trying to be proactive.” 

The Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District is also considering such a program, but Superintendent Sandra Reed said the district is still waiting for guidance from the state.

Districts are planning to use funds from the most recent federal coronavirus relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, to pay for the incentives. The U.S. Congress passed the bill in March, and it sent a total of around $1.6 billion to schools in Mississippi.

Biloxi received around $18.3 million of those funds, while Kosciusko got $7.3 million and Bay St. Louis-Waveland got around $6.6 million. The money can be used for an array of purposes, from purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean buildings to training and professional development for teachers and staff, in addition to purchasing educational technology and providing mental health supports for students.

ESSER funds may be used for vaccination outreach efforts, which “could include activities to create awareness and build confidence, facilitate clinics, and provide incentives … for staff to get vaccinated,” a U.S. Department of Education document states.

Officials from the state auditor’s office and state education department met last week to discuss the issue, according to Logan Reeves, spokesperson for the state auditor’s office. 

“The office has been in communication with MDE,” said Reeves. “Our position is that these programs generally are legal. However, it is contingent upon individual school districts to make sure any incentive programs they enact do follow and stay within the bounds of the law.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the state education department had still not given districts the go-ahead to move forward.

“When we receive guidance from USED, it is not uncommon for us to conduct research to determine if there are any additional factors to consider under state law,” said Cook, the spokesperson for the state education department. “We have not issued guidance (to school districts) yet.”

As they remain in limbo, 2,869 students and 476 teachers and staff tested positive for COVID-19 during the week of Aug. 30, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Health. Around 15,000 students and 570 teachers and staff were quarantined during the same time period. The data is not a complete picture of actual infections and quarantines in schools as all school districts do not 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.