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Gov. Reeves Calls to Cut Funding for Virtual-Only Schools as Class Outbreaks Soar

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here reading to Rankin County third graders in 2019, is calling for the Legislature to cut funding for school districts that are not offering in-class instruction after the worst week for school outbreaks yet. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is calling for the Legislature to cut funding for school districts that are not offering in-class instruction. He made the recommendation in his budget proposal this week, even as the Mississippi State Department of Health reported the worst week for school outbreaks yet.

“School districts willing to provide in-person learning, while working to ensure the safety of students and teachers, are at a financial disadvantage because they are operating under the same or greater budget conditions as those districts only providing online distance learning,” Reeves said in his 88-page budget proposal, released Monday. “For this reason, I propose limiting funding for school districts unwilling to provide the option of essential classroom instruction.”

The day after Reeves released his proposal, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported that 1,023 students and 523 tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week, far exceeding any other.

Schools reported quarantining 16,705 students and educators due to exposures last week, too. MSDH reported 70 outbreaks, also a record number, up from just 24 the week before. Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that 65 more schools have gone virtual amid widespread outbreaks.

This week, a Hernando Elementary School first-grade teacher died after spending weeks in the hospital suffering from COVID-19. In her final Facebook post, she urged others to wear masks, which the governor is not mandating statewide even as the state returns to summer-levels of infections and hospitalizations.

Reeves: Schools ‘Poisoning a Generation’

Reeves’ proposed budget does not include a plan to raise pay for teachers, even though he promised a substantial pay increase during his 2019 run for governor. Instead, the governor is asking for $3 million to pay for a “Patriotic Education Fund,” while also suggesting that the Legislature should end the 3% state income tax.

He said the goal is to “combat” a “dramatic shift in education” and “fund teaching that educates the next generation in the incredible accomplishments of the American Way.”

“Across the country, young children have suffered from indoctrination in far-left socialist teachings that emphasize America’s shortcomings over the exceptional achievements of this country,” the proposal reads, citing no evidence to back up its claims. “Revisionist history has aimed to tear down American institutions, and it is poisoning a generation. Capitalism, democracy, and other uniquely American values have been the victims of a targeted campaign from foreign and domestic influence—aiming to destroy the pillars of our society.” 

The Parents Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome

The Parents’ Campaign, a top education advocacy group that lobbies for legislation to bolster public education, chastised the governor’s proposals in a statement today.

“Public school teachers will remember the emails from then-candidate Tate Reeves that landed in their school inboxes shortly before last November’s election, promising that teacher pay raises would follow if they would help elect him governor. Not a penny more for our teachers,” Parents’ Campaign President Nancy Loome said in today’s statement. 

“Instead, Reeves used his budget recommendation narrative to accuse teachers of ‘poisoning a generation,’ saying that in our public schools ‘young children have suffered from indoctrination in far-left socialist teachings.’”

The Parents’ Campaign estimated that Reeves’ overall budget proposal would cut spending on pre-K through 12th grade education by about $190,000. 

In her statement today, Loome noted that Reeves’ budget proposal has little chance of becoming law, though, because the Legislature, not the governor, sets the budget. Reeves, a Republican, has had a contentious relationship with the Republican-dominated Legislature, which earlier this year overrode a governor’s veto for the first time in almost 20 years.

“Last month, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, and House Education Chair Richard Bennett spoke to members of The Parents’ Campaign and expressed a sincere hope that Mississippi’s revenue will allow passage of a teacher pay raise in the coming legislative session,” Loome said.

Private School Org Resists Reporting ‘Customer’ Cases

During his time as lieutenant governor, Reeves repeatedly fought against large teacher pay increases and championed the creation of an “education scholarships” program that shifts millions in funds from public schools to private school vouchers.

During a Nov. 12 press conference, Dr. Dobbs said MSDH has struggled to get private schools to report COVID-19 data.

“We are seeing a lot of private and independent schools not reporting their numbers. They need to do it, and it is a public-health order, and they are going against the legal mandate to report. … It’s lamentable that there has been unnecessary pushback on this. I’ve been a bit baffled by it, to be honest, but we’ll continue to try,” he said.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, seen here during a summer press briefing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said he is “baffled” at private schools’ resistance to work with MSDH on COVID-19 data collection. Photo courtesy UMMC.

In a statement that day, the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools, which represents many of Mississippi’s private academies, defended its member schools’ lack of transparency.

“Unlike state schools, independent schools are not agents of the state. They are small businesses that happen to be in the business of teaching children. As such, they relate to the government in the way any other small business does,” MAIS said in the statement. “No other Mississippi small businesses are required to report hearsay evidence of ‘positive cases’ to MSDH on a weekly basis.”

MAIS defended resistance to the legally binding public-health orders, saying the organization “questions the legitimacy and efficacy of the state’s reporting requirements.”

“Small businesses, including independent schools, have no first-hand knowledge of positive cases that pass through their doors; the best they can do is report what customers report to them,” MAIS said, referring to reports from students and parents.

MAIS, founded as the Mississippi Private School Association in 1968, has a long history of resistance to government orders. It began as an accrediting agency for newly formed segregation academies as white parents moved their children from public schools to private schools in response to federal court-ordered racial integration.

‘Our Hierarchy of Prioritization is Extremely Stupid’

Even as Reeves pushes for limiting funds to schools that are not currently offering in-person classroom instruction, the state’s top health officials are urging public schools to consider going virtual.

“I think it’s a great time for schools if they’re having outbreaks to look at virtual for a while. … A virtual break is a great idea,” State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said during a Nov. 12 press conference today. “I also think it’s a good idea to think about backing off athletics for a while. I would recommend that nobody go and be a spectator at a sporting event for a while.”

Dobbs said that elementary-school outbreaks have increased in recent weeks “because older kids got it and went home and spread it to their families and then the younger kids spread it in schools.”

Dr. Paul Byers, the state epidemiologist, concurred with the health officer’s recommendation for schools experiencing outbreaks to go virtual, saying that those schools also need to pause extracurricular activities.

“If you go virtual as a school, that needs to include extracurricular activities,” Byers said.

Mississippi State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers, seen on right at a MSDH press conference on COVID-19 with State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs in January, is urging schools that go all-virtual amid outbreaks to also pause extracurricular programs. Photo courtesy MSDH

Throughout the summer and fall, Gov. Reeves has repeatedly emphasized his support for efforts to keep school sports going amid the raging pandemic. But during the Nov. 12 press conference, Dobbs said he worried that many schools and communities are putting sports ahead of health and safety.

“Our hierarchy of prioritization is extremely stupid,” Dobbs said. “And we’re prioritizing youth sports not only over academics, we’re actually prioritizing it over community health. And I’m not saying there’s not intrinsic value to sports, I love sports. … And you know, people lost their minds when you couldn’t have full stadiums full of football folks. Please, everybody do a little soul searching and understand we are all connected.”

Cases, Hospitalizations Double Since Mask Mandate’s End

When Gov. Tate Reeves first implemented a statewide mask mandate on Aug. 4 amid the height of summer hospitalizations, he said he was motivated, in part, by sports.

“I want to see college football,” he said as he announced the mask mandate.

Gov. Tate Reeves, seen here during a July press briefing, allowed the mask mandate to expire on Sept. 30, hailing it as a success and saying he trusted Mississippians to continue wearing masks without government orders. Photo courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

The governor allowed the mask mandate to expire on Sept. 30 after weeks of sustained drops in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. He said he believed most Mississippians would continue wearing masks to keep cases and hospitalizations low.

The number of Mississippians hospitalized with COVID-19 has nearly doubled since then, from 431 hospitalized on the day the mandate expired to 824 today. MSDH reported 1,395 new COVID-19 cases today. That brought the 7-day average for daily new cases up from 500 the day the mandate expired to 1,161 today.

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