Esther Newell, a public school teacher in Jackson, Mississippi, said her job is difficult under normal circumstances, but “that difficulty has turned to tragedy” with the Delta variant tearing through the state.
“I’m concerned about soap in the bathroom because schools have been chronically underfunded for decades,” Newell told Insider.
She expressed concern on “every level” as she prepared for the start of the new academic year, particularly given Mississippi’s lack of a statewide school mask mandate to protect children from the coronavirus.
Last month, an eighth-grader at a Mississippi middle school died of COVID-19, just days after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves claimed that the virus only causes “sniffles” in children under the age of 18. Reeves speculated that the virus had killed perhaps one or two children in the state since the pandemic began, before state Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs corrected him. Seven children have died in Mississippi as a result of COVID-19.
At least 18,825 students tested positive for COVID-19 during the first month of school, and more than 15,000 were quarantined last week alone, according to state data.
Only 46% of Mississippi residents aged 12 and older who are eligible for coronavirus vaccines are fully vaccinated — one of the lowest rates in the country.
Several Mississippi teachers told Insider they want Reeves to impose a mask mandate on public schools, claiming there is no other way to avoid disruptions in the learning process and keep schools open.
Reeves has thus far resisted. On August 19, during a press conference, Reeves stated that reporters in the room who inquired about the coronavirus and schools were turning masks and vaccines into a political issue in order to increase their Twitter following.
Insider’s multiple requests for comment from Reeves’ office were not responded to in time for publication.
“There is no debate about when we should prioritize protecting children over the economy,” Newell told Insider. “It appears as though [Reeves] is successfully avoiding the question, and on every level, it concerns me.”
George Stewart, a Jackson middle school Spanish and special education teacher, believes Reeves understands the effectiveness of masks but is pandering to a small political base that opposes them.
“He claimed he has no damn political agenda, but in my opinion, he does,” Stewart said.
Hannah Gadd Ardrey is the choir director at a high school in northern Mississippi. She was named Mississippi’s Teacher of the Year in 2020. While she stated that her school district has its own mask mandate, she is fearful that it will be overturned by the local school board.
“We definitely ensure that we maintain a social distance,” she told Insider. “We always wear masks when we sing, but every ten minutes, we let them out or spread out and take a mask break to prevent anyone from becoming lightheaded.”
Ardrey wished the governor would “reconsider the science, the numbers, and recognize that Mississippi students need to be safe.”
“When you’re a leader, silence and compliance are worse than anything,” she explained.
Teachers stated that while children do not mind wearing masks, social distancing is difficult with class sizes exceeding 30.
Newell teaches theater at Jackson’s Ida B. Wells Academic and Performing Arts Complex, a public art school that enrolls students from nearby high schools and middle schools throughout the day.
Each week, she said, teachers receive a “no admit” list of students who are not permitted on campus. However, Newell stated that there was “no efficient or clear communication” informing teachers about which of those students tested positive for COVID-19.
According to a district spokesperson, the district notifies teachers when a student tests positive for COVID-19 so they can assist with contact tracing.
“In addition to the breakdown in communication that I’ve been experiencing, I’ve heard similar stories from other teachers in different districts about how their administration is obfuscating and not listening to teachers’ voices,” Newell said.
Stewart, who is also the president of the Jackson Association of Educators, said area teachers are also concerned that they will be unable to maintain sufficient social distance in their classrooms to prevent students from spreading the virus.
“Since the class size has remained constant, we’re still talking about 30+ children in a classroom with no ability to socially distance themselves,” Stewart explained.
He cited an autistic student in his school district as an example of someone who has difficulty wearing masks. It’s critical that other children wear masks to protect such vulnerable students, Stewart said, and they’re generally willing to do so, in his experience.
“Occasionally, we have students who wish to remove their masks for whatever reason,” Stewart explained. “However, I believe that the fact that I have not heard of any child being quarantined here demonstrates the educators’ and staff’s vigilance.”
Ardrey added that her students were also willing to wear masks out of concern for the health of those around them.
“Students are doing everything they can to make it work,” Ardrey explained. “People like to pretend that they have it all figured out, but in reality, we don’t. We are simply attempting to do our best each and every day.”