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Mississippi teachers beg for help after more than 18,000 students catch COVID-19 in one month: 'At what point do we protect children over the economy?'

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Woman shops for school supplies
The start of the school year in Mississippi isn't going well. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • More than 18,000 Mississippi students have caught COVID-19 in the first month of the school year.

  • Teachers told Insider the state of education in Mississippi is a tragedy and they want a mask mandate.

  • "There is no discussion around at what point do we protect children over the economy," one teacher said.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Esther Newell, a public school teacher in Jackson, Mississippi, said her job is difficult under normal circumstances, but with the Delta variant tearing through Mississippi, "that difficulty has turned to tragedy."

"The schools are chronically underfunded for decades, so I'm concerned about soap in the bathroom," Newell told Insider.

She said she had concerns at "every level" as she prepared for the start of this academic year, especially since Mississippi doesn't have a statewide school mask mandate to protect kids from the coronavirus.

Last month, an eighth-grader at a Mississippi middle school died from COVID-19 just days after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves held a press conference claiming that the virus only causes "sniffles" in children under 18. Reeves speculated that maybe one or two children had died from the virus in the state since the beginning of the pandemic, before state Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs corrected him. To date, seven children have died of COVID-19 in Mississippi.

According to state data, at least 18,825 students have tested positive for COVID-19 within the first month of school and more than 15,000 had to quarantine last week alone.

Only 46% of Mississippians 12 and older, who are eligible to get the coronavirus vaccines, are fully vaccinated - one of the worst vaccination rates in the country.

A teacher and a child wearing masks in a Mississippi classroom.
Columbia Elementary School student Ella Bebwell, 9, works with teacher Danielle Whittington in a 4th grade reading and language arts class on August 25, 2020 in Columbia, Mississippi. The Washington Post/Getty Images

Several Mississippi teachers told Insider that they want Reeves to issue a mask mandate for public schools, saying they see no other way to avoid disruptions in the learning process and ensure schools can stay open.

So far, Reeves has resisted. At a press conference on August 19, Reeves said reporters in the room who asked about the coronavirus and schools were making masks and vaccines into a political issue to grow their Twitter following.

Reeves' office didn't respond to Insider's multiple requests for comment in time for publication.

"There is no discussion around, at what point do we protect children over the economy," Newell told Insider. "It seems like a question [Reeves] is successfully avoiding, and every level of it is concerning to me."

George Stewart, a middle school Spanish and special intervention teacher in Jackson, said he thinks Reeves understands that masks are effective but is trying to play to a small political base that opposes them.

"He said he's not playing to no damn political agenda, but in my opinion, he's playing to a political agenda," Stewart said.

Hannah Gadd Ardrey, who was Mississippi's Teacher of the Year in 2020, is the choir director at a high school in northern Mississippi. While she said her school district has its own mask mandate in place, she's afraid that the local school board could overturn it.

"We definitely make sure we're socially distanced," she told Insider. "We always wear masks whenever we sing, but every 10 minutes we let them go outside or spread out and take a mask break so no one gets light-headed."

Ardrey said she wished the governor would "take a second look at the science, look at the numbers, and see that Mississippi students need to be safe."

"Silence and compliance is worse than anything when you're a leader," she said.

Teachers said kids don't mind wearing masks but social distancing is hard with class sizes over 30

Newell is a theater teacher at Jackson's Ida B. Wells Academic and Performing Arts Complex, a public art school that takes in students from surrounding high schools and middle schools throughout the day.

She said teachers at the school receive a "no admit" list of students who are not allowed to come onto campus each week. But Newell said there's been "no efficient or clear communication" informing teachers which of those students may have tested positive for COVID-19.

A spokesperson for the Jackson Public School District told Insider that it notifies teachers when a student tests positive for COVID-19 so they can assist with contact tracing.

Children retrieve bagged lunches in their classroom at Columbia Elementary School on August 25, 2020 in Columbia, Mississippi.
Children retrieve bagged lunches in their classroom at Columbia Elementary School on August 25, 2020 in Columbia, Mississippi. The Washington Post/Getty Images

"The breakdown in communication that I've been experiencing, I've also heard other teachers in different districts tell me similar stories of how their administration is being very unclear and not really listening to teacher's voices," Newell said.

Stewart, who is also the president of the Jackson Association of Educators, said teachers in the area also are concerned that they won't be able to social-distance enough in their classroom to keep students from spreading the virus to each other.

George Stewart
George Stewart, a Spanish teacher at Whitten Middle School in Jackson, Mississippi. George Stewart

"The class size hasn't changed, so you're still talking about 30+ kids in a classroom with no ability to social distance," Stewart said.

He cited the example of an autistic student in his school district who has difficulty wearing masks. It's important that other children wear masks to protect such vulnerable students, Stewart said, and in his experience they're generally willing to do so.

"We have students who, from time to time, want to pull their masks down for whatever reason," Stewart said. "But I think the fact that I haven't heard of any case of a child here having to be quarantined speaks to the vigilance of the educators and staff here."

Ardrey said her students were also willing to wear masks because they didn't want to put other people around them at risk of catching the virus.

"Students are trying their best to make it work," Ardrey said. "People like to put on a front that they've kind of got it figured out, but really we don't. We are just trying to do our very best every day."

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