When schools began classes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students and teachers were required to wear masks to help stop the spread of the infectious disease. This is not the case this year.
In all three states, governors have left the decision to local districts, many of whom are reluctant to speak out on an issue that typically generates fierce debate. A small number of schools have already reopened in the southern Gulf, while the majority of students are expected to return to class within the next two weeks.
At this time last year, there was much fear that schools would become sites of mass dissemination. But now there is a clear consensus that in-person learning is best for students and can be done safely as long as the proper measures, like masking, are in place.
Many districts in the region, including New Orleans, Birmingham and Jackson, no longer offer families a virtual option. So what does the push for in-person learning mean for schools in states where COVID-19 cases are rising and mask use is no longer mandatory?
As of this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all K-12 staff and students wear masks inside school buildings, regardless of their vaccination status. .
Experts say universal masking is especially important in areas like the southern Gulf where the delta variant is spreading rapidly and vaccination rates are low.
“We find ourselves hurtling towards the start of school without any policies in place to protect our communities,” Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said in a video earlier this week.
The Mississippi Educators’ Association on Monday called on the state’s Governor, Republican Tate Reeves, to immediately mandate mask use in Mississippi schools. Reeves, however, declined the organization’s request. Through a spokesperson, he said he had “no intention” of issuing another school mask mandate.
Republican Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said last week that she also does not plan to issue a school mask mandate. In a Washington Post op-ed published on TuesdayIvey promoted mask vaccinations and social distancing.
“Here’s the truth: Closing businesses will not defeat COVID-19. Wearing masks will not defeat COVID-19. And preventing our students from learning in the classroom will not defeat COVID-19,” Ivey wrote.
While a warrant is unlikely in Mississippi and Alabama, things could play out differently in Pelican State. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said he wants direction on masks to be determined locally for now, but is not “taking anything off the table.”
“We are at the start of the fourth wave. How do you pull tools out of the toolbox to deal with the surge before you know how much worse it will get? Edwards at a press conference last week.
Only a few districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have publicly said they plan to require masks for all staff and students. Among them are some of the largest urban districts in the states.
New Orleans Public Schools had planned to require masks only for unvaccinated students and teachers this fall — in part as an incentive to vaccinate — but extended the mandate to everyone last week, regardless of or vaccination status.
Schools in the city of Birmingham, Alabama aligned with the CDC’s recommendation on Tuesday shortly after it was released, according to Superintendent Mark Sullivan.
“We are following scientific recommendations from medical and public health professionals,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Our goal is to provide a safe and healthy environment for our students and employees.”
A mask mandate has always been a no-brainer for at least one school district in Mississippi. Jackson has had a citywide mandate since July 2020. It is the only municipality in the state where mask wearing is still enforced not just in schools, but in all indoor spaces.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has repeatedly said he will not ease restrictions until a significant percentage of Jacksonians are vaccinated. Less than 40% of eligible adults and children in Hinds County, where Jackson is located, are fully immunized. The county has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state.