Math teacher Lakeshia Ford instructs students via Zoom at the Jefferson County Junior High School. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A school nurse told students and families on Tuesday there were so many cases of COVID-19 in the school it was “almost impossible to contact trace” and for all seventh through 12th graders to assume they’d been exposed as a result. 

The situation at West Lincoln Attendance Center in Brookhaven, where there is not a mask mandate – and its quick transition to a hybrid model of instruction following the holiday break – is not unique. 

Schools are battling staffing and substitute teacher shortages, closures and a large number of student absences as teachers and administrators attempt to kick off the spring semester.

Omicron, the dominant and extremely contagious strain of the coronavirus, is making its way across the state, and schools are not spared. The state saw a record-high number of new cases on Thursday with over 8,000 Mississippians testing positive in a single day.

The Department of Health reported 1,541 teachers and staff who had tested positive across 633 schools for the week of Jan. 3-7, the highest number of positive staff reported at any point in the pandemic. 

On top of logistical and health challenges, school leaders are also dealing with students and families’ COVID-19 fatigue. Oxford School District Superintendent told his school board last week he wasn’t sure the community “would stomach another mask mandate.” A board member made a motion to require masks anyway, but other board members did not support it. 

On Thursday, the district announced it would be closed on Friday and extend the observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

“Today, we have a total of 107 staff members out and 58 of those are classroom teachers,” a memo sent to parents and students stated. “… WIth so many employees out, it is difficult to provide the quality of instruction our students are accustomed.”

Roberson and another district-level administrator had been acting as elementary school principals earlier in the week after four administrators tested positive for COVID-19, the district’s public relations official told Mississippi Today. 

The Yazoo County School District delayed its in-person start date an additional two days after more than 10 faculty and staff members were either quarantined or sick with the virus, said Superintendent Ken Barron. 

All students and staff returned to campus this week, and each school has seen hundreds of absent students in the first three days of school. 

Barron, along with many other school leaders, emphasize they’re doing everything they can to keep kids in school, including the mask mandate that has been in place since the beginning of the school year.

“As long as we have enough adults up here to hold school, we will be here,” he said. 

Teachers and staff who got vaccinated by the end of last year were eligible for a financial incentive, which Barron said has helped reduce infection and quarantine numbers in that group. The district has also continued to require masks all year.

“We are trying everything we can to stay open,” he said. 

Nearly 7,000 students in Vicksburg Warren School District on Friday began a five-day, district-wide quarantine, according to a press release. Schools and offices will be closed until Wednesday of next week.

School officials did not provide current case and quarantine numbers for the district, but public relations official Christi Kilroy said the “numbers were climbing rapidly this week.”

“The safety of our students and staff is always on our minds and, with numbers rising quickly, the board felt it best to do a shutdown,” she said in an email. “With so many out, we were also having difficulty covering staff needs to keep schools and offices open.”

In the DeSoto County School District, where masks are not mandatory, Superintendent Cory Uselton said the district’s biggest challenge right now is staffing issues. Despite increasing substitute teacher pay this year, they have still had to utilize teacher’s assistants as substitutes and some teachers have had to forego their planning periods to cover a colleague’s class.

A few classrooms across the district are currently quarantining, following the Department of Health’s guidance that a classroom should isolate if three students test positive, but Uselton said at this time there have not been enough clusters to necessitate switching an entire school to remote learning. 

He said all teachers have been told to be prepared to pivot to virtual learning within 24 hours notice, and said that while this surge has been tough on both teachers and students, he is proud of the work teachers are doing to continue educating despite the circumstances. 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.

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.