Erica Lowell waits for her students to return, and her anxiety waits with her. She is a public-school teacher in Rankin County, speaking to the Jackson Free Press under a pseudonym.
In less than a week, on Aug. 10, the majority of Lowell's students were scheduled to return for in-person classes.
"I am extremely nervous, to be honest with you," she says, then chuckles uneasily. For a moment, the admission sounds like an apology. "I checked my class sizes ... my biggest class has (over 20) students."
Lowell does not teach geometry, but now she performs it in her head, visualizing a setup that spaces her students out to the appropriate distances. "There's no way," she admits. "I've had to put my desks into groups to fit all my students in the classroom."
Her school, like the rest of the public schools in Rankin County, opted for the traditional model of learning in the fall, with the majority of students scheduled to return for in-person classes as August began.
Like most school districts in Mississippi, a virtual option is available for families that choose to keep their children at home. By press time, just over 20% of her school's student population had chosen distance learning.
Lowell's greatest fear is simple: a chance encounter with an asymptomatic student, then the virus carried home to her family. Her daughter is only 3 years old, usually in the care of her parents, both in their 60s. "They're in a high-risk group," Lowell says.
Her anxiety has grown with the spread of coronavirus across Mississippi, with infections and deaths exploding in greater numbers with every passing week. Immunocompromised teachers in the Rankin County School District have the opportunity to provide virtual lessons only, but that provision doesn't expand to an individual like Lowell, who inevitably interacts with the immunocompromised.
She has little hope that parents will keep their children out of school after possible exposures. "They send their kids to school with the flu, with strep throat, with pink eye ... I know this will be no different," Lowell says. Asked if she expects an outbreak at her school, the teacher takes a moment to gather her thoughts, but answers resolutely. "Sadly, I do."
After this story appeared in print, Rankin County School District updated its COVID-19 "Smart Restart" plan. The beginning of K-12 classes in Rankin County are now scheduled for Aug. 17, beginning with a "hybrid" model, which separates schools into two "cohorts" of half the student body, and has them alternate between in-person and virtual learning on separate days, reducing the class sizes and providing additional space for social distancing. The hybrid model is currently scheduled to last until Aug. 28, at which point RCSD will "move into the 'enhanced traditional' scenario on August 31, if possible," RCSD's update reads.
'Work Left To Do'
The Rankin district's initial reopening plan represents the norm for Mississippi's schools, a baseline focused on getting as many children as possible to receive the in-person instruction experts agree is most beneficial to their educational attainment.
There are contingency plans in place for outbreaks, for individual classes, schools and for the district as a whole. The shift to a hybrid model, which breaks up students into two cohorts and has them attend school in person on alternating days, could lessen the exposure of mostly full classes across the district.
But changes to the reopening plans the district formulated as the coronavirus simmered have not yet materialized in many other counties as the virus has boiled over across Mississippi. Some districts, including Jackson Public Schools, have shifted entirely to the virtual model, electing to face the challenges of distance learning, network connectivity and device access rather than the danger of uncontrolled viral spread.
In Mississippi, COVID-19 peaked at 1,775 cases on July 30, with a test positivity rate spiking over 25% the same week: the highest in the U.S. by far.
Gov. Tate Reeves spent much of the last week of July reviewing the school reopening plans from county and municipal districts across the state. The governor acknowledged he was taking a personal interest in the adequacy of the return-to-school plans, commenting repeatedly that he had both the authority and the willingness to intervene if he judged an individual school district's plans insufficient.
"We're reviewing every report that's come in, and we're going to make a decision later this week or early next week on what we think the best course of action is," Reeves said at a July 27 presser.
"Some of the anecdotal evidence that I've been hearing, there appears to be a lot of—shall we say—work left to do in many of the school districts, based upon the plans that they have submitted."
Presumably, this includes both districts the governor considers insufficiently cautious or excessively protective. When asked if he had reviewed the Jackson Public Schools' plan for a virtual-only fall semester citywide, the governor acknowledged that whether he accepts it would depend on what's in it. "Quite frankly, I want to see what sort of academic progress they made on a virtual-only basis in March, April and May," Reeves said. He has the legal ability to override plans in individual districts.
State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said the same principles of infection control behind the prevention of spread elsewhere will work in schools. "A classroom that has space for kids to be apart, masks, a good plan using some of the guidance that we've shared ... that makes it a lot easier to open up, without as many concerns."
But outbreaks loom, and without immense caution and care, Dobbs sees catastrophe in the future of Mississippi's schools. "When we open up schools, if we're not careful ... two dozen kids walking through the door are going to be contagious," he said.
From Israel, A Warning
Educators from schools across Mississippi, both public and private, shared their experiences of anxiety, uncertainty and most commonly confusion. July's terrible spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations could not have come at a worse time, upending plans for a traditional start to the fall semester for many.
Mississippi's looming reopening does not exist in a vacuum. Other nations have already conducted live experiments with reopenings, providing a plethora of data—and warning signs—for other school systems to learn from.
In Israel, an early, strict lockdown provided the opportunity for the earliest attempts a return to normalcy. Through much of May, that nation's rolling seven-day average of cases lingered below 20—meaning COVID-19 had virtually vanished. Then, on May 17, the grand experiment began: Israeli children from kindergarten to high school returned to traditional in-person classes, notably without restrictions, a kind of return to normalcy that most nations could only dream of achieving.
Within a month, it was a nightmare. Exactly 30 days later, Israel's seven-day rolling average was 10 times higher than it was on the day schools opened. Today, its numbers resemble Mississippi's: daily increases of over a thousand are the norm.
As with everything in the era of coronavirus, absolute certainty evades experts and observers alike. "Due to the fact that the restrictions were released very fast, it's difficult to disentangle the effects of (reopening) separately," Israeli government adviser Eli Waxman told The Wall Street Journal in a July 14 report. "There was a lot of pressure, a lot of political pressure, and this led to this too-fast pace. There was also an unjustified feeling—that we warned against—that this is over."
But there is ample evidence that school openings were the leading cause of viral spread in the nation. A Haaretz report of Israeli Health Ministry data from July 10 to 16 showed roughly 29% of new cases with confirmed sources—excluding home infections—were traced to the nation's schools. Public events accounted for the second largest source, at just 17%.
Two primary differences complicate a head-to-head comparison between Mississippi and Israel. First, the Israeli school system opened without many of the restrictions—masks and social distancing—that Mississippi's school districts must adopt in some form. However, the state of the pandemic in Israel upon reopening was an order of magnitude less dire than it is in Mississippi, with daily increases 50 to 100 times lower leading up to the school experiment.
In Corinth, An Outbreak
At July's end, Corinth Public Schools became the test case for Mississippi's educational reopening. Media descended on the city last week, as the first state school districts reopened for the fall semester. On Friday, the district celebrated its first week back—and warned of its first outbreak.
A single student, who showed up for classes and then tested positive for COVID-19, exposed around 12 other students, all currently quarantined for the next two weeks. On Monday, an additional two confirmed cases—totally unrelated to the first—led to the quarantine of a presently unknown number of students: 91, as of the most recent accounting.
On Tuesday, yet another pair of confirmed cases led to another round of quarantines. They were five students who somehow managed to slip through the school's screening process and potentially infect other students. After press time, the number of confirmed infections rose to six. Shortly thereafter, CPS reported outbreaks at both Corinth Middle School and Corinth Elementary School.
Corinth Public Schools Superintendent Lee Childress confirmed to the Jackson Free Press in an interview that parents with quarantined students could opt out of in-person learning for the rest of the semester, but that other families now experiencing cold feet would be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Corinth High School will continue in-person learning in some form until 20% of its student body is infected: though far less than the 122 confirmed infections necessary for such a move would likely leave the entire school quarantined in the first place.
Childress also acknowledged that testing for quarantined students was up to the families' prerogative, meaning many secondary infections may go unreported.
Corinth parents reached out on background to complain about the outbreak and the lead-up to the beginning of the school year. "The push to get them there is obviously not about their education or safety. (It is) 1,000% about athletics and money," said one parent, whose child is currently quarantined after being exposed during the first week of school.
It is unclear what, if anything, Corinth School District could have done to prevent the infected students from attending. Research has proven repeatedly that asymptomatic transmission is a common occurrence with COVID-19, meaning the diagnostics and fever checks for students is a limited precaution at best.
"When you're dumb enough to stick your head out of the water first, you best be prepared for what happens, and they're not," the parent said. "They're just not."
'Time To Make Tough Decisions'
The very same day Lowell returned to class, a chorus emerged from the highest levels of state leadership. It began with Dr. Dobbs, speaking at a Mississippi State Medical Association event, and his frank reassessment of the enthusiasm to see schools open, the Sun Herald reported.
"I was off," Dobbs said. I thought maybe it would be the right time to start in August until about a little while ago."
But the tidal wave of cases reaching an unprecedented crest days before reopening convinced him otherwise. The state health officer suggested anything—an online start, a delayed semester—that would buy the state more time before events like the exposure at Corinth High School became a statewide occurrence. "I think it's a good idea to delay school," Dobbs said.
University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Medicine Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Dr. LouAnn Woodward joined him in calling for a delay to schools shortly thereafter.
"It is time to make the tough decisions—for the health of all Mississippians," Woodward tweeted on Monday. "A statewide mask mandate (and) K-12 schools delay start until after Labor Day."
On Tuesday, Reeves, newly returned from the coast, made the final decision: School returns are delayed until Aug. 17 for grades between 7 and 12 in Bolivar, Coahama, Forrest, George, Hinds, Panola, Sunflower and Washington counties. As of press time, it is uncertain how this affects JPS.
Across the state, all students and teachers must wear a mask at school. And for the next two weeks, Reeves is mandating public mask use for all Mississippians, health professionals across the country have long recommended. Notably, Reeves' new school restrictions do not include Alcorn County, where Corinth High School is located. Neither do they apply to Rankin County, where Lowell teaches.
In Rankin County, Lowell is still waiting, still nervous. Corinth was a wake-up call for her, but did nothing to delay the year for her district. She waits anxiously for routine moments like lunchtime, now in her class of over 20, where masks will be down for students to eat. "I just want to go back to the part of quarantine when everybody loved teachers and understood what we went through," she admits.
State intern Julian Mills contributed to this report. Email state reporter Nick Judin at [email protected].