‘Protect my babies’: Parents desperate for safe school options as the virus surges
In Mississippi, changing policies leave parents feeling like they’re forced to choose between their children’s education and their lives
MOUND BAYOU, Miss. — On the first day of school, Vaketha Butler gathered her three children together and prayed for them. “Lord, Jesus, just be a shield of protection over my babies,” she pleaded.
She finished fixing their hair and went to get her phone to take a picture, but by the time she found it they were already out the door, off to their first day of school in more than a year.
Within a couple of weeks, they were back learning at home.
Ten students tested positive for the coronavirus at Northside High School, which serves middle and high school students. The outbreak shuttered the entire school, forcing her two oldest kids — one in 12th grade and one in eighth — to pivot to virtual learning. Then her eighth grader had to quarantine again after another outbreak sent his entire grade home.
All Butler could feel was a relief. One of her children has asthma. Another has autism, but is incredibly outgoing; he loves giving hugs and talking to people and oftentimes struggles to keep his mask on. Butler believes parents have been disenfranchised by the lack of options as the contagious delta variant rips through the state.
“I don’t like it at all. I don’t like when people make decisions for me anyway. I can make that choice and that decision myself,” she said. “When they sent them back this year, it became scarier because it’s the delta variant.”
Conflicts over masking, mandatory vaccinations and confusing quarantine policies have made the 2021 back-to-school season one of the most fraught in the pandemic era. Families already on the brink after managing crisis after crisis now find themselves once again yo-yoing between in-person and remote learning and making impossible decisions about whether to risk their children’s health for their education.
In Mississippi, school districts were required to resume in-person classes as the primary mode of teaching until rising coronavirus cases forced the state to backtrack. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempt to ban mask mandates in schools unleashed a chaotic array of legal battles across the state. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is engaged in an ongoing legal battle over his executive order to stop schools from requiring masks. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has become involved in investigating some states’ mask bans.
Though Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and the Republican-controlled legislature haven’t banned mask mandates outright, they’ve refused to issue any sort of mask mandate for schools.
In the meantime, many parents are angry, scared and desperate. “I think a lot of parents and families across the country are braced for impact for another ride on the roller coaster,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, an organization that advocates for children and families. “There is deep skepticism that we are going to be able to trust that kids are going to be kept safe, that COVID-19 mitigation strategies are going to be able to keep schools open.”
In Mississippi, a state with sharp racial disparities in health and education, the fight over whether to open schools, and how to protect kids, has put parents living in low-income, majority-Black communities like Mound Bayou in an especially tough position.
Butler knows well the toll that COVID-19 can take on a body. In January, her husband Khari caught the virus and landed in the hospital with COVID pneumonia in both lungs.
“Had he not gone to the hospital, I think my husband probably would have died,” Butler said.
Colorful metal posts emblazoned with a list of the school’s values mark the entrance of I.T. Montgomery, an elementary school in Mound Bayou: Respectful. Responsible. Safe. Cooperative.
The painted-on words have been there for years, but on Aug. 5, they seemed painfully ironic.
It wasn’t just the first day of school. It was the first time that children in the North Bolivar Consolidated School District in the rural Mississippi Delta had set foot in a classroom in over a year. Kids wore new backpacks, fresh uniforms and masks. Children slipped behind protective shields surrounding each desk before teachers started up their first lessons.
For Butler, it didn’t feel safe, or responsible, and she believed that those in charge had been anything but respectful of the worried parents not quite ready to send their children back.
Although it’s still unclear how the pandemic has affected children’s learning, the pressure for Mississippi schools to get students back in front of teachers has been intense.
Mississippi ranked first in the nation in improvement on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, but with just 32% of fourth graders scoring proficient or above in reading, it also was coming from behind many states.
Districts in the Delta region of Mississippi, which has the highest child poverty rate in the U.S., have the furthest to go to catch up to their peers nationally. Before the pandemic, North Bolivar Consolidated School District received an F on The Mississippi Statewide Accountability System, which measures academic achievement. In the 2018-19 school year, 19% of students in the district scored proficient in math while 21% showed proficiency in English. Scores were even worse the preceding year, with just 14.6% proficient in math. No data was available for 2019-20.
The three schools that comprise the district are spread out among three towns in Bolivar County, Mound Bayou, Duncan and Shelby. Rows of cropland flank either side of the two-lane highway that runs through the county, and fewer than 2,000 people live in each of these towns — tiny Duncan has a population of just 372. The shops lining each short Main Street are mostly boarded up. Now, the lifeblood of these communities is in their schools.
The same factors that impact children’s learning here — poverty, lack of resources in rural communities and systemic racism — also impact health outcomes.
A 2020 federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study characterized the Mississippi Delta as having “high prevalence of chronic disease and mortality rates that significantly exceed the national average.” In 2017, deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease were the highest in the nation.
Preexisting health problems and the scarcity of hospitals in the Delta allowed the coronavirus to wreak havoc in communities.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 9,000 Mississippians have died from COVID-19, including 143 in Bolivar County, where Mound Bayou is located. In the first few weeks of school, which started for most districts in early August, 11,766 children across the state had tested positive for the coronavirus, as had 2,383 teaching staff. In the week of Aug. 16-20 alone, 28,990 students were in quarantine, according to data from the Mississippi State Department of Health.
“State leadership is idly watching as Mississippi’s health care services are strained and exhausted,” wrote Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, in a guest column for The Clarion-Ledger.
The dilemma over whether to bring children back to school is particularly fraught in majority-Black communities such as North Bolivar, where the coronavirus initially hit the hardest. Although the proportion of Black people dying of COVID-19 is now on par with white people in Mississippi, at the beginning of the pandemic, 72% of those who died from the illness were Black.
Health hazards such as skyrocketing infection rates are one of the reasons Loretta Nash wishes she’d been given more flexibility when deciding whether to send her goddaughter back to in-person learning at I.T. Montgomery.
Her godchild, whom she cares for full time, entered second grade this year. It was the first time the little girl had been in a classroom since kindergarten. “I am excited that they can get back in school. I think it’s a plus, especially for the smaller kids, because they learn better in school,” Nash said.
But, while Nash loves the school and trusts the principal, she wishes virtual classes or some kind of hybrid learning had been an option from the start. Because, when it comes down to it, Nash doesn’t believe the people calling the shots at the highest level really cared about her godchild’s well-being.
“Most people that are in higher places, they have the funds to homeschool. They have more choices. With public schools, you really don’t have too many choices. It is what it is, whether your kid is safe or not,” Nash said.
On Aug. 19, three weeks into the school year in North Bolivar, the Mississippi Board of Education amended its original policy decision and allowed districts to use virtual learning, citing surging coronavirus cases. The decision came as the hospital system in Mississippi teeters on the brink of collapse. Some 42% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, compared with a national vaccination rate of almost 55%. Infection rates have soared and hospitals have run out of intensive care unit beds. The numbers are better in Bolivar County, where 50% of residents have been fully vaccinated. Still, thousands of new coronavirus cases have been reported every day statewide since the beginning of August.
In an email, Jean Cook, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) said that, besides allowing virtual learning, “MDE has provided guidance to districts to help them develop their plans for the 2021-22 school year. Federal law requires school districts to seek public comment on their plans and take such comments into account in the development of their plans.
“Local school districts are in charge of instructional and scheduling decisions,” the statement continued. “MDE encourages parents to communicate with their district leaders about local decisions affecting their community.”
Although it’s now allowed, hybrid scheduling is still logistically very difficult to pull off, said Maurice Smith, superintendent of the North Bolivar Consolidated School District.
“In our situation, a hybrid schedule is something that’s almost impossible for us to implement and stay within [MDE’s] guidelines because of facility needs and transportation needs,” Smith said.
Across the board, striking the right balance between offering virtual learning to ease the concerns of parents who worry about their children’s health and offering in-person learning to address the needs of parents who want their children back in the classroom has been extremely complex, said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board.
“One could easily say, ‘Well, gosh, it’s just like the hybrid from last year.’ Well, it’s really not. [Educators] thought they were going to be back in school and so the planning that went into this year looks different,” Pruitt said.
There’s also the issue of the nationwide teacher shortage.
“You look at it and say, ‘Well, there’s all that federal money that came in, so money shouldn’t be a problem, hire more people. You can have some in virtual and some [teaching face to face].’ The problem is we do have this national teacher shortage,” Pruitt said. “It’s easy to say, ‘We’ll go hire more people.’ You don’t if there’s not enough people.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to spread through Mississippi schools. By early September, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported that an additional 8,869 children and 1,724 school staff had been infected with the coronavirus.
Mary Miller, a local doctor who recently retired after spending 11 years of her 42-year medical career in public health, said that the data doesn’t give a clear picture of the transmission of the coronavirus among children: It’s self-reported by school district employees, and many private schools don’t report infection data at all. Not having that comprehensive data, “completely throws [tracking the spread of the coronavirus] off the rails,” Miller said.
“If you don’t have accurate data, then you don’t know if you’re getting ahead or behind,” she added. “You don’t know if you’re doing everything that’s necessary to protect the kids or if you’re not getting even close to it.”
Regardless, Miller thinks the safety protocols in Mississippi schools need to be much stronger than they are now.
“In a perfect world, we would pull out all the stops. The teachers would be vaccinated before they walked in that classroom. They would be masked, the kids would be masked and anybody over 12 would have a shot,” she said. “But I realize I would be run out of many places in Mississippi for feeling that way.”
Many educators agree with her, and now most districts in Mississippi require masks. Still, some have expressed frustration that state leaders haven’t done more to listen to and protect kids and teachers. But many are afraid to speak on the record with the press for fear of retribution from the department of education.
In Bolivar County, climbing coronavirus case numbers have confirmed Butler’s fears.
Both children managed not to get infected during the first outbreak and returned to school, and the eighth grader has so far tested negative for the virus after the second one.
While they’re home, Butler said, virtual learning goes smoothly. Her kids tune into school through Google Meet and interact with their teachers. During PE, they’re on a video call with a teacher who sees that they get out of their chairs and exercise.
Many children struggled last year while all classes were virtual, but Butler’s kids maintained A’s and B’s.
This is the way she wishes it would stay. Continuing to send kids back into school despite the frequent outbreaks and disruptions feels reckless to Butler. She said she’s scared the entire time they’re at school. Classes have only been back in session for a little over a month, but she’s already at a loss.
“I just — at what point will they understand that this is a risk?” she asked. “Why keep kids in school when you can put them back in virtual learning?”