December 3, 2020

Some Mississippi teachers paint grim picture of adherence to virus rules

Teachers at a school in the Rankin County School District were given two masks, a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a spray bottle of chemicals marked “hazardous to humans and domestic animals” by the district to last them the semester.

At a school in the Jackson County School District, teachers received so few cleaning supplies from the district that they’re having to tear off-brand Lysol wipes in half just to have enough to wipe down desks between classes. A little more than a week since students returned to the district, teachers are already spending their own money to buy additional cleaning supplies for their classrooms.

At a school in the Itawamba County School District, administrators are not enforcing mask mandates on students in hallways or other common areas, and students and teachers are regularly pulling masks below their noses.

In the Poplarville School District, administrators have told teachers that students are allowed to remove masks in classrooms if they are just two feet apart, directly countering recommendations of state health officials that everyone wear masks and stay six feet from other people.

As most schools across the state have reopened for in-person instruction, dozens of teachers are sharing horror stories of not being provided the resources and protections they were promised by district and state leaders when reopening plans were finalized.

Educators whose stories were shared with Mississippi Today for this article feared losing their jobs or retaliation from district leaders. Teachers in Mississippi — the lowest paid in the nation on average — sign annual contracts that include broad termination clauses, and many districts disallow teachers to speak directly with journalists without permission from district offices. For these reasons, the teachers cited or quoted in this article are not named.

Teachers across the state have reason to be concerned as early COVID-19 data for schools paints a bleak picture. As of Tuesday — less than two weeks since the start of school in most places — at least 589 teachers across the state are quarantining because of possible exposure. At least 245 teachers have tested positive.

There are at least 2,035 students quarantined in the first few days of the school year, and at least 199 across the state have tested positive.

On Friday, 38 of the state’s 82 counties reported confirmed cases in public schools. By Monday, 71 counties reported confirmed cases in schools. Health officials have said it’s likely that many students and teachers already had the virus before school started and brought it with them with classes resumed.

Earlier this month, Gov. Tate Reeves assessed the reopening plans of all 138 school districts and announced he would let most of them commence as planned. Reeves ruled that schools in eight counties that were deemed hotspots — representing just 7% of the state’s total student population — should delay two weeks until Aug. 17.

In doing so, Reeves bucked the advice of education advocates and the state’s top medical professionals, who’d publicly urged leaders to delay the start of school to at least early September. Minutes after Reeves announced he would allow schools to reopen on time, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, sitting next to Reeves in a live press conference, said of reopening schools: “I think it’s nuts.”

“It’s impossible to imagine that we are not going to pay the price for cramming kids into schools right now,” Dobbs said earlier this month. “There’s just no plausible scenario where it’s just not going to be bad.”

Without statewide mandates and limited standards for reopening, districts were tasked with deciding for themselves how and when to reopen and how to handle safety concerns. This has caused even neighboring school districts to respond differently to confirmed cases — a point of frustration for many teachers who spoke with Mississippi Today.

For example, more than 100 students at Gulfport High School were quarantined last week after a choir teacher tested positive. A teacher at a neighboring school district told Mississippi Today that her district is choosing not to quarantine in similar ways.

“We’re hearing that a couple students in my school have tested positive,” the teacher told Mississippi Today. “But we didn’t do like Gulfport and quarantine everyone who possibly came in contact with those students. It just begs the question: Why isn’t there something uniform? Why isn’t the state making everyone do this the same way? It doesn’t feel like anyone has a good grasp on best practices, and it’s making us feel unsafe.”

And the stories of unsafe school activities or districts not adhering to their announced reopening plans are stacking up.

Seniors at Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg participated in their annual, school-sponsored senior celebration event the first week of school. Photos of the event on social media showed students on the school’s football field in very close quarters while wearing no masks. A few hours later, Lamar County School District officials sent parents of the seniors a text that read: “If your student participated this morning in Sr. celebration, we are notifying that a positive Covid case has been identified.”

In the Grenada School District, janitors haven’t been given enough cleaning supplies to clean classrooms at the end of each day as their district leaders promised in their reopening plans signed off on by state leaders.

“It’s honestly just a disaster waiting to happen,” a Gulf Coast teacher told Mississippi Today. “We’re doing the best we can, but it feels like there’s just no way to keep everyone safe. That’s not a good feeling.”

Article originally published by Mississippi Today