Politics

In Mississippi, Back to School and the Delta Variant Are a “Recipe for Disaster”

A woman in a surgical gown and a mask looks at a clipboard while standing near a car.
A medical worker at a pop-up COVID vaccine clinic in Leland, Mississippi, back in April. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Right about now, a whole lot of parents are looking around and asking themselves: What is school going to look like this year? Here in New York, this is the time of year when I get letters telling me who my kids’ teachers are going to be and how to track down school supplies. In other parts of the country, kids are already back in classrooms. And after more than a year of disrupted and hybrid learning, everyone has had this hope that this year will be different. Normal—whatever that is.

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You just have to press play on a couple of videos from school board meetings across the country to realize how elusive “normal” still is. A lot of the meetings I’ve been watching recently are about masks—who should be wearing them and who shouldn’t. At a school board meeting in Buncombe County, North Carolina, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn showed up to compare mask wearing to child abuse. At a different meeting, in Tennessee, there was an overflow crowd. Parents followed school board members to their cars, and threatened them.

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Nick Judin, who is a state reporter for the Mississippi Free Press, has been watching this conversation play out in his state. The schools there are having meetings like this now, too, county by county. In Mississippi, school starts early. Some start up in July, which means there’s been this collision between the dream of what many people wanted school to look like, and the reality of rising caseloads due to the delta variant. The state has already quarantined thousands of students; one high school was packing kids into the gym for freshman orientation just a few weeks back. It’s now gone fully remote. “All of these school districts had plans for a return to normalcy, and then that just completely fell apart,” says Judin.

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On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Nick Judin about the fight over opening schools in one state—Mississippi—where the coronavirus is as bad as it’s ever been, but common ground is still hard to find. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: If you look at a graph of new COVID cases in Mississippi, it almost looks like a bolt of lightning, shooting straight up. New cases are rising rapidly. Hospitals are stretched. 

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Nick Judin: We are in the worst stage of this pandemic so far. We’re in uncharted territory. We are seeing an unbelievably transmissible variant of this virus, and we’re seeing a public that has become so fatigued with the precautions and the isolation. And to whatever degree that they did take it seriously, we’re seeing a lot of people who have decided that it’s over now, and the result of that is a rapid escalation like nothing we’ve ever seen.

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That fatigue is especially evident in schools, which are open for business without a statewide mask mandate in effect. Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeves says it should be up to the individual school districts to make their own plans around masks.

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But he didn’t always feel that way. Last fall, he gave a speech urging schools to go back in person with masks.

When you go back a year, the debate was really over: Can we have school safely at all? So the idea was we can go back to school, but we have to have all of these protective measures. Masks were a guarantee. And the reason that debate was important was because many people made the argument that in-person classes were extremely important for childhood development and that you really couldn’t replace in-person schooling with virtual learning and still get the same outcomes. And to be honest, the research that I have seen backs that up. People did the absolute best they could with virtual learning, but I take very seriously the argument that one of the No. 1 things we have to protect is an in-person school year, because there is really no replacement for it.

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At the time this decision was made in Mississippi, was it controversial to say we want kids back in the classroom but everyone will wear masks?

There was absolutely debate over it because every month we understand more about the virus. We worried that maybe there wouldn’t be the uniform use that was necessary to prevent major outbreaks. And last year was a mixed bag. There definitely were outbreaks that were school closures. But in-person learning environments with very structured, strict rules on masks use and all of these other precautions that we took were pretty effective at keeping kids in school without exposing them and spreading these large clusters of coronavirus.

It sounds like a success story for Mississippi.

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In a lot of ways, it was. Now, the problem that we had last year was: You send all these kids to school, they’re all wearing masks, everyone’s being very careful, and then they leave school and they all pile in a car together and they go back to someone’s house and they have a sleepover or they have a party. Time and time again, our public health leaders told us that it was small gatherings around the school environment that were really, really driving a lot of the transmission, especially in the younger population.

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So given all that knowledge: As planning began for this new school year, how did that begin to be factored in?

Observing it as I have and certainly seeing the panic that a lot of people have had and a lot of teachers have had, even in school districts that did relatively well last year, I feel like there was a kind of momentum that carried through from the late spring and the early summer, where we saw transmission dropping, where we saw the effects of the vaccine really.

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A back-to-normal momentum.

It really did feel like back to normal. You get your shot, you wait a couple weeks, and you’re back going to restaurants. You’re occasionally seeing friends that you didn’t see for a year before. It was a potent feeling. And the evidence of that trickling into our plans for the school year is really evident now because it doesn’t feel like we have taken a lot of the precautions that we did even last year. I’ve had teachers and I’ve had parents send me pictures and videos of entire grades packed into indoor spaces together. Everyone together, no masks. You combine that momentum and that desire to go back to normal with a variant of this virus  and it’s been a recipe for disaster.

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I found this local news tape from back in July, and it just seemed like there wasn’t a plan. It was like two trains headed toward each other. The delta variant was ramping up. And then at the same time, there was that push you’re talking about—the back-to-normal push. And those two things are happening at the same time, so then it became unclear: What does that mean for the kids in school? And no one really knew.

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Our state health officer talking about coronavirus more generally said that right now he feels like he’s an air traffic controller and every day he just watches two airliners collide. And that kind of is a good analogy for what we saw.

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Your governor was so key to mandating masks in schools last year. It’s striking to me that he’s completely turned around this time and said this is about parent choice. When did you notice that change?

This is something that we’ve been aware of as a talking point way beyond the borders of Mississippi. As the delta wave started to rise, we started having these conversations about what safe schooling looks and what restrictions we’re going to have, and frankly, there’s been a lot less conversation with the governor entirely. He stopped doing his regular coronavirus press briefings. And that wasn’t unexpected. As the virus slowed down, there was less attention paid to the virus. And so we heard from him less. But as delta’s picked up again, we really have not returned to that level of communication that we had earlier in the pandemic. It really tipped people off when he was asked at the Neshoba County Fair if he thought that children should be mandated to wear masks in schools, and he said it was foolish, that in Mississippi we believe in freedom.

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You were at a presser recently with medical officials and were reporting on what they were saying about what they were seeing. What did they have to say about the state of COVID in Mississippi right now?

The hospital system is absolutely at its limit. I can’t stress that enough. Right now, we are totally full. Every morning, you have hundreds of patients waiting to get a permanent room, and it’s only getting worse. Dr. Alan Jones, who is the director of the emergency department at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which is the state’s largest hospital, has said that we’re looking at five to seven to 10 days of the transmission that we’re seeing now before hospital system failure.

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UMMC has had to open a field hospital in a garage. It is a concrete garage. They are setting up tents and they are getting a federal agencies to help staff it. Because, let’s be clear, the bed shortage is a staff shortage. We do not have the nurses. We don’t have the doctors. We don’t have the medical professionals needed to take care of everyone

You visited with the mother of a baby that contracted COVID and talked to her about how her friends and neighbors had responded to what happened to her. And I wonder if that told you anything about how different people are understanding what’s real and what’s not.

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I spoke to a mother, Stephanie Ulrich, a Mississippi woman with three kids. Her son Wyatt got coronavirus back at the beginning of this year. And it really exacerbated a preexisting condition that he has and he came very close to dying.

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She took a video of trying to wake him up that is just hard to watch.

What really struck me—not just about her story, which is powerful and moving and in many ways accomplishes more than even my journalism could do—was the reaction that she gets on social media. There’s a lot of love, there’s a lot of support, it’s obvious that she’s educating a lot of people, but there is so much vitriol, and there is so much conspiracy.

How is Stephanie thinking about her kids in school?

Well, she’s not. She’s home-schooling her kids. With the conditions involved, it’s not a risk she’s willing to take.

So she doesn’t trust the school system.

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What a person like Stephanie needs for kids who have conditions like this is really a form of virtual learning. You really prefer to have kids in class, but when the risk of contracting the disease and having a serious reaction, as Wyatt already did, is so high, then absolutely virtual learning would have been an optimal way for them to stay in the school district but not really be exposed to the virus. And what she found was that that wasn’t an option. And what she found speaking to other people with children who have preexisting conditions is that wasn’t really an option for them. So it forced her hand.

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In the absence of statewide decision-making, all of these districts have to make the call themselves, and many of them are not perfectly equipped to plan a pandemic response. That was what we were always worried about. The public school system in Mississippi is already underfunded. I guarantee you there was not a lot of slack sitting around for managing a public health campaign. So they have MSDH guidance.

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Department of Health guidance.

Those are recommendations. And Mississippi has been pretty clear through the entire pandemic that you have our public health leaders make recommendations and often you would see the governor then turn those recommendations into executive orders, and that’s how that pipeline works. This year, we haven’t seen that. So we’ve seen the recommendations come out, and then we’ve heard the governor say that mask mandates are foolish and harmful in schools.

Some would say that this is how it should work with local control and individual school districts making choices that are right for them. What would you say to that?

I don’t understand how people think that a localized strategy works for a virus that does not respect borders. This virus does not respect international borders. Why would it care about the Neshoba County line? There’s no way to make a decision in this pandemic based on your own circumstances because the circumstances of everyone around you are going to be affecting you tomorrow. And there’s no way to make a decision in this pandemic for yourself because your decisions are going to affect everyone around you. So this idea of localized control is… I’m trying not to get mad right now.

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It’s this obsession with the individual over any sort of collective good that has left us totally unable to respond to this pandemic.

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I keep thinking about the classrooms in Mississippi that are open now and what it must be like in there. Who are you hearing from who’s dealing with this back-to-school decision-making?

I spoke to a teacher who had a rough time last year. The district didn’t really take it as seriously as they should have. And I spoke to her this summer, and I asked if she was vaccinated. She told me no, that she had some concerns about the vaccine. She was waiting to see what was happening. I spoke to her again not that long before school started. And she said, “Well, I got vaccinated,” because she didn’t trust the school district to take care of her and she wasn’t going to be able to take time off. They had basically taken away the quarantine time off, so she would have had to use her personal sick days if she got COVID, so she got vaccinated. Silver linings, I guess.

It’s hard to know what to make of that. People have said that as the infection rates go up, a lot of times vaccination rates go up as well.

We are seeing significantly more vaccinations. You can just look right on the charts and you can see as delta really starts to get serious, more people are getting vaccinated. Is it at the velocity we need to get out of this? I don’t know. But there are more vaccinations, and that is one of the silver linings right now.

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