Gov. Tate Reeves announced an executive order on Tuesday that mandates schools in eight counties delay reopening schools for grades 7-12. DeSoto County, one of the state’s COVID-19 hot spots, was not included in this order.
The counties that will have classes postponed are: Bolivar, Coahoma, Forrest, George, Hinds, Panola, Sunflower and Washington. The order pushes their start date to Aug. 17. A Mississippi Today analysis showed that the order affects less than 7% of students in the public school system.
The executive order also includes a statewide mask mandate for public gatherings and shopping centers for two weeks. Previously, only 37 of the state's 82 counties were under a mask mandate. All students and staff in public schools will also be required to wear masks during school hours.
This is all in an effort to allow schools to reopen safely, according to Reeves’ announcement.
“We cannot be too proud to change course,” Reeves, who has resisted a statewide mask mandate, said.
The largest teachers union in the state came out against the executive order shortly after the announcement, in a statement posted to the Mississippi Association of Educators Facebook page.
"No one is proposing an indefinite hold on going back into buildings," the statement said. "We are simply requesting a few weeks to lower the number of new COVID cases and develop a plan that ensures every school in every district has the resources they need to get back into buildings safely...The governor’s plan, in its current form, is reckless and irresponsible. It ignores the advice of the state’s top medical officials and is putting students and educators and their families at risk."
School districts had to submit their reopening plans to the Mississippi Department of Education by July 31. Reeves said he spent the weekend reading 598 pages of reopening plans, and doing so led him to believe an executive order for those eight counties was necessary, as opposed to a blanket order for the state’s 151 school districts.
“I believe in my heart we have got to get our kids back in school,” Reeves said. “I believe it’s better, whenever possible, to allow local leaders to determine plans for their schools.”
Just last week, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs called reopening schools before September “crazy.”
Dobbs used a different tone during Tuesday’s press conference and said “our kids have got to get back to school.”
But Dobbs also acknowledged the shortcomings of some district’s reopening plans.
“Quite honestly I believe some of the (schools’ reopening) plans could use a lot of work,” Dobbs said.
The MSDH also passed a new statewide order on Tuesday, which states that Mississippians with COVID-19 can now be fined $500 to $5,000 or be imprisoned for six months to five years for not self-isolating and knowingly exposing others to the virus.
With close to 36,000 students, DeSoto County has the largest public school system in the state. Since DeSoto County was not included in the delay, all grade levels will be returning to classrooms on Monday. There have been mixed reactions about returning to school from teachers across the county.
DeSoto County Schools superintendent Cory Uselton said that formulating a plan for returning to school this fall was difficult with such a large district because each family has their own unique needs.
“There’s just no perfect plan,” Uselton said. “We just ask our parents to be flexible. We’re doing the best that we can under these circumstances."
Uselton said that the district sent a survey to parents and teachers. A majority of both groups preferred a return to traditional, in-person classes. Still, the district is offering a choice for parents to either send their children back to school or keep them at home for distance learning.
“We respect the needs of the family members and want to make sure we meet those needs,” he said.
Uselton noted that he also had to weigh the risks of some students not being able to get their nutritional, mental health and medical needs met if schools are closed.
Some teachers have expressed excitement about returning to in-person school and seeing their students, while others are dreading the return, and some have even resigned their position.
“This is definitely one of the best school systems in the state, and I’m ready to get back. Five months is a long time to be out of the classroom for anybody,” said Horn Lake High School teacher Carolyn Rook.
Vicki Frye, a second grade teacher at Horn Lake Elementary, like Rook, is looking forward to returning to school. She said that she is confident in the district’s plans and praised the communication from the district.
“I’m excited to see the kids,” Frye said. “I know it won’t be normal, but I also know this is temporary and I just keep reminding myself that.”
Other county teachers, though, are anxious about the safety of returning to their classrooms next week.
Uselton said that the teachers’ variety of concerns were reflected throughout the community, with 60% of district teachers wanting to return to traditional in-person learning.
One district teacher, who asked to remain anonymous to speak honestly about her employer, has a history of health problems and decided not to return for classes this fall. “I’m done teaching. It hit me,” she said. “I started packing up my stuff, ten years of stuff, balling my eyes out.”
Although she won’t be teaching, she has been helping her colleagues prepare for the semester.
“I have never seen the anxiety level that I am seeing with teachers,” the teacher said. She said that a lot of the teachers were not familiar with a lot of the software being used for virtual learning. “I am going to be an advocate for [these teachers].”
She said that she witnessed a number of her colleagues express their anxiety to administrators about how they will provide a quality education to students, and she said emotions were running high. One teacher had a panic attack in the office of an administrator, saying she couldn’t do enough for the students.
Though she said the administrators have been supportive and are doing all they can, she said the stress has taken its toll on many.
Frye echoed these concerns, saying that her main worry was how well teachers will be able to teach across multiple platforms.
“There’s different levels of stress, but the core of our anxiety is ‘am I going to be able to meet my kids’ needs?’ … because that’s what we’re here for,” Frye said.
Desoto County Schools welcome students back this Monday, Aug. 10.