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As Outbreaks Force Schools To Go All-Virtual, Districts Reinstate Mask Mandates

Oak Grove High School
In its partial first week back from July 20 to 23, 2021, Oak Grove High School, which is part of the Lamar County School District, had reported nearly five times as many COVID-19 as the entire school district had reported after more than a week of classes in 2020. Students and families are seen here entering the Oak Grove High School Performing Arts Center for orientation programs on July 24, 2021. Photo courtesy Oak Grove High School/Facebook

Only days into the school year, some districts in South Mississippi are walking back their decision to make mask-wearing optional. Yesterday, the Lamar County School District announced that two of its schools, Oak Grove High School and Purvis High School, were shutting their doors on Monday and going all-virtual until Aug. 16 “due to the high transmission rate of COVID-19.”

Lamar County Schools began classes early this year, with faculty and staff attending professional-development days on Tuesday, July 20, and Wednesday, July 21. Classes started for half the students on Thursday, July 22, and for the other half on Friday, July 23.

During that partial week alone, Oak Grove schools identified six cases among faculty and staff, 41 cases among students, and quarantined 100 people. Purvis High only identified four cases during that period, with students accounting for half of them.

In a letter to parents yesterday, Oak Grove High School said it had “taken every possible precaution including the continual contact tracing of every positive case” to prevent outbreaks. But like other Lamar County schools, Oak Grove High did not require masks during its first seven days of classes. The school told parents it had identified “5 outbreaks in different school settings” and 28 positive cases at the high school alone.

‘Outbreaks Across Our School District’

In the Lamar County School District’s announcement, it said the mask requirements at the schools that remain open are, for now, temporary. The policy is currently set to end on the same day Oak Grove High and Purvis High plan to resume classes.

“We are also experiencing rapid increases in COVID-19 cases and outbreaks across our school district. For the safety of our students and staff, starting Monday, August 2, the Lamar County School District will require face coverings to be wrong by all staff and students. This face covering requirement will tentatively end on Sunday, August 15, 2021,” the announcement says. 

“…We will reevaluate these requirements on a weekly basis. The decision to continue wearing face coverings will be based on the number of positive COVID-19 cases in our schools.”

In the Lamar County School District’s “Safe Return To In-Person Instruction” manual released July 23, the district said “face coverings are recommended for students and staff during the school day when social distancing is minimized, but not required for vaccinated students and staff.” 

chart showing totals of COVID-19 cases and quarantines in Lamar County School District
Courtesy Lamar County School District

The now-defunct guidance did not say it was required for unvaccinated students or staff, nor if it would take steps to verify a person’s vaccination status. Indoor photos from Oak Grove High School’s orientation day show few students, faculty or staff wearing masks. The district noted that its guidance was “subject to change” based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the Mississippi State Department of Health and the governor’s executive orders.

The entire Lamar County School District includes Lumberton, Purvis, Baxterville, Oak Grove and Sumrall schools. Last year, teachers returned to work on Aug. 3, 2020, and students returned on Aug. 13. By the end of students’ first full week back on Aug. 21, 2020, the entire Lamar County School District had reported just five cases among students and five among faculty and staff; 87 people in both groups had been quarantined district wide by that point.

But in the era of delta variant, the Lamar County School District reported more cases and quarantines than that after just four days for teachers and two days for students. Between July 20 and 23, 2021, the Lamar County School District reported 15 cases among faculty and staff. For July 22 and 23 alone, the school reported 64 cases among students. The school reported 165 quarantines between both groups for the first week. 

At two schools, Oak Grove High School and Sumrall High School, more students had tested positive after two days of classes this year than had done so in the entire district after the first seven days of classes last year. The district has not yet reported data for the first full week of classes, which includes July 26-30, 2021.

Poplarville, Coastal Districts Reverse Mask Decisions

Even as the more contagious delta variant has spread throughout Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves has said he has “no intention” of mandating masks in school this year as he did last year. In mid-July, he cited personal freedom and said it was a “fact” that everyone who wants to get vaccinated can do so. 

But children under age 12 still are not eligible for any COVID-19 vaccines, and even among those who are eligible, only 8% of Mississippians between the ages of 12 and 15 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. That rises to 14% among those ages 16 to 17. Among all age groups, 37% of Mississippians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is freely available at locations listed on Mississippi is 49th in vaccination among all states, slightly leading Alabama.

A child in the Brookhaven School District takes the 2nd grade gifted screening test on Aug. 11, 2020. The Brookhaven School District has announced that it will require masks at the start of the school year for 2021. Photo courtesy Brookhaven School District.

In the wake of the Lamar County School District’s announcement that two schools will go all-virtual amid sprawling outbreaks, other school districts that did not require masks have begun reversing course, too. 

In its Restart Plan on July 19, the Poplarville School District announced that “masks and face coverings will be optional.” But yesterday, the Pearl River County school district issued an update.

“With concern for our staff and students’ safety and health, Poplarville School District has updated the 21-22 SY Restart Plan to include that masks are now required to be worn while indoors or on buses. … Poplarville School District plans to re-evaluate the mask mandate on a month-to-month basis and as guidance is issued by the Mississippi Department of Education and the Department of Health.”

On the Gulf Coast, some school districts have changed course in the past two days as well. On July 28, the Sun Herald published a story saying that coastal schools “largely won’t require students or staff to wear masks this year.” Two days later, reporter Isabelle Taft updated the story to note that, by Friday, the Pascagoula-Gautier, Gulfport and Pass Christian school districts had all decided to make masking mandatory.

Taft reported that Pass Christian superintendent Dr. Carla Evers changed her mind and decided to require masks after hearing a presentation from Mississippi health officials on Friday morning. Gulfport began classes on July 23 with masks optional before revising the policy yesterday.

In Lincoln County, the Brookhaven School District announced yesterday that it will require masks for at least the first two weeks of schools and assess the data before making any changes. The Lincoln County School District said earlier in July that it would not require masks, but The Daily Leader reported today that “the district is expected to issue an updated statement at the beginning of the week.”

Education, Health Leaders Urge Mask Mandates

Masks remain optional in many school districts across the state, such as the Pearl River County School District. In Lafayette County in north Mississippi, the Oxford School District Board voted 4-to-1 to adopt a plan that makes face coverings optional on July 26. The lone dissident on the board, the Daily Journal reported, said he wanted it “to be clear that the COVID policy we are being asked to vote on tonight does not follow the recommendations” of health experts.

“Once you choose public opinion over the advice of public health experts, there really is no going back, at least not in any credible sense,” the Journal reported Board of Trustees member Ray Hill as saying. “Majority rule is not the way to pass public health policy.”

The story notes that one anti-mask speaker that night argued against requiring masks in Oxford schools, claiming that “numerous scientific papers” found that “wearing face masks for extended periods of time puts the wearer, especially children, in imminent risk of physical and psychological harms.” Several versions of this false claim have circulated on social media over the past year, but medical experts say masks are safe for anyone over age 2.

Dr Anita Henderson speaks at a microphone while Mayor Toby Barker and Dr Bryan Batson stand behind her
Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician and the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is warning that the COVID-19 Delta variant poses dangers to children as schools reopen. The academy has urged schools to mandate masks. Photo courtesy City of Hattiesburg

While the plan the Oxford School District Board of Trustees approved made masks optional, it gave the superintendent the power to impose a mask mandate. In the wake of the outbreaks in the south Mississippi, Oxford School District Superintendent Bradley Roberson announced today that masks will now be required in Oxford’s schools for at least the first three weeks.

“As education leaders, we have all seen the negative impact last school year has had on student learning which is why an overwhelming majority of districts across our state have been determined to open schools with as much normal school operations as possible,” Roberson said in a letter to the school district community reported by The Oxford Eagle. “Unfortunately, in recent days we have learned from some of our district friends from around the state who have already started school that a normal return may not provide us with the best opportunity to keep kids in school.”

Gov. Reeves issued a mask mandate for schools last year. The move came days after the Mississippi State Department of Health reported 1,775 cases on July 30, 2020. MSDH’s daily reports would not exceed that until the more deadly fall and winter surge. MSDH’s daily case reports exceeded last summer’s record two times this past week, though. 

With the governor showing more resistance to the idea this year, though, the Mississippi Association of Educators sent him a letter on July 26, urging him to “reconsider” his position and to “mandate the use of masks for all individuals inside Mississippi schools.” 

“This time last year, state leaders, medical experts, and public education advocates were all acting with similar urgency in ensuring the health and safety of students and educators by supporting a mask mandate,” MAE’s letter said. “Now, a year later, we find ourselves facing nearly identical new daily infection rates. The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending masking for all students, regardless of vaccination status. And yet we now find ourselves barreling toward the start of school without any policies in place to protect our communities.”

The delta variant, MAE noted, has proven more contagious for children. Dozens of children have been hospitalized due to the variant over the past month, including some who had to be placed on ventilators for life support.

“Last year, we were primarily concerned with the health of adults inside our schools and the impact in-person instruction could have on the many students and educators living in multi-generational homes with high-risk family members,” MAE said in its July 26 letter to Reeves. “This year, we are combating a new and more dangerous strain of COVID one that has already sent children to the ICU. We don’t know the extent to which this new strain could affect unvaccinated students, but we do know this: even one critically ill student is one student too many.”

On July 29, MSDH confirmed that another child had died of COVID-19, bringing the pediatric death from the virus in Mississippi to four. The child was a teenager, MSDH said. Past child deaths included one younger than 5, one between the ages of 6 and 10, and one between the ages of 11 and 17.

Reeves: ‘In Mississippi, We Are A Free People’

In its letter to the governor, MAE called for “state-led intervention beyond advising mask wearing among unvaccinated students and educators.” It noted the difficulty of determining who is vaccinated and who is not, saying it would be “unfair to ask educators to become their school’s vaccination police when putting on a mask will help keep the entire school community safe and healthy.”

But after spending about a week-and-a-half on out-of-state trips to Aspen, Colo., and Orlando, Fla., Gov. Tate Reeves returned to the state to speak at the Neshoba County Fair Thursday, where he mocked the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance on masks while declaring, “In Mississippi, we are a free people.”

Tate Reeves at podium
The Delta variant of COVID-19 is tearing its way through the state’s unvaccinated population, with the Mississippi State Department of Health reporting the highest single day of cases since March today. Gov. Tate Reeves rejects the notion of any further restrictions to stem the tide. Photo courtesy State of Mississippi

Only July 27, the CDC recommended that vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike wear masks in public indoor settings in “areas of high transmission” (which currently includes the entire state of Mississippi). The new guidelines also recommend “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.” 

At the Neshoba County Fair two days later, on July 29, Gov. Reeves lampooned the guidance without specifically mentioning the school component.

“Tuesday’s change in the CDC mask guidance is foolish and it is harmful. It reeks of political panic so as to appear they are in control. It has nothing to do with rational science. In Mississippi, we believe in freedom,” said Reeves, who not only ordered masking in schools last year, but ordered a statewide mask mandate last August that lasted almost two months. “In Mississippi, it is our belief in God that has gotten us through this last year and a half. And it is my belief in God that gives me great optimism for what is to come in our great state.”

During his trip to Orlando, Reeves praised that state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has barred local governments from issuing their own mask mandates in the state. This past week, DeSantis issued an executive order barring school districts from requiring masks indoors. While Reeves says he will not mandate masks in classrooms, he has not suggested that school districts be blocked from that option.

‘Our Hospitals Are Full, ICU Bed Availability Scarce’

While speaking at the Neshoba County Fair on Thursday, Reeves told attendees that “every government action that was taken last year was to protect the integrity of our health-care system and to bridge the gap to a time when a vaccine could be developed.” But despite the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, Mississippi’s health-care infrastructure is once again being pushed to its breaking point. 

Gov. Reeves was at a Republican event in Aspen on July 20 when State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs announced that 13 ICUs in the state had run out of capacity for additional patients. The governor was still out of state in Orlando a week later when Dobbs warned on July 27 that “we are seeing more and more ICU capacity being extinguished.”

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr Thomas Dobbs looks at Governor Tate Reeves while wearing a mask during a press conference. He is now concerned about the Delta variant that is spreading in the state
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, seen here listening to Gov. Tate Reeves respond to a question about the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine during his briefing for reporters in Jackson on Jan. 4, 2021, warned on July 27, 2021, that “we are seeing more and more ICU capacity being extinguished.” AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Earlier this month, Dobbs revealed that Mississippi has about 2,000 fewer nurses working in the state than seven months ago. In tweets earlier today, Dr. Jennifer Bryan, a family physician and the chair of the Mississippi State Medical Association, expressed her frustration as a fourth wave once again overwhelms health care workers statewide.

“Why are more people not talking about the fact that our hospitals are full in Mississippi with ICU bed availability scarce to non-existent? Amazing how people will refuse a safe and effective vaccine with no regard to the effects on others, healthcare workers or the system. … Seek your medical advice from physicians. Get the vaccine and mask up through delta. If not for yourself, do it for someone else. You don’t see what we do.”

On July 1, Mississippi hospitals reported 113 COVID-19 patients statewide, with 36 ICU patients and 12 on ventilators. By July 29, those hospitals were reporting 823 COVID-19 patients statewide, with 226 in ICU beds and 108 on ventilators. Over the same period, the seven-day average for daily cases reported rose from 193 to 1,475.

During an interview on American Family Radio yesterday, Gov. Reeves reiterated his opposition to masks in schools.

“I have no intention of mandating masks in schools this school year. I said back in February and March and April that once the school year was over that we would be beyond that,” the governor told The Core host Walker Wildmon. “Now, I think there are gonig to be some conversations had at the local school level and I think all Mississippians that are interested in this topic ought to be able and willing to show up at their local school board or their local school and let their voices be heard, but no, we will not have a statewide mask requirement in schools—not in Mississippi.”

This story has been updated to note that the Oxford School District changed its mask policy on July 31, 2021, from a mask-optional policy to a masks-required policy.

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