JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Emily Thompson said she felt relief watching her son get in line to have his temperature checked before he walked into his school Monday to begin sixth grade in east Mississippi.
For Thompson, the start of classes at Newton County Middle/High School means the return of structure. The Decatur pharmacist and her husband, who also works in health care, have been working full-time since the pandemic began. She said it was a “nightmare” trying to keep her son, and their two other elementary-age children on track with lessons at home.
“I could not emotionally give them what they were needing,” she said.
This week, 44 Mississippi school districts are resuming in-person instruction for the first time since March, many with safety precautions like mandatory mask-wearing, temperature checks and daily sanitizing. Another six districts are starting this week with only remote instruction.
Advocates for returning in-person classes said children need structure and many are missing educational opportunities at home. But with coronavirus cases rising in Mississippi, some are sounding the alarm that it might be too soon.
“It’s given me a lot of anxiety,” Mississippi’s state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, told the Mississippi State Medical Association recently.
Dobbs described sending students back to school as a “frightening experiment” and said some districts are more prepared than others. He urged districts to rely on online education as much as possible.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves spent the weekend reviewing hundreds of pages of plans sent in from almost 140 districts on how they will approach fall instruction. Most have offered the choice of either in-person instruction or virtual instruction.
Corinth School District was among the first to re-open for in-person instruction last week. On Friday, as Mississippi reported its highest-ever daily death count at 52 coronavirus-related fatalities, the district announced its first positive case in the high school. On Monday afternoon, a week after students returned, the district reported two more positive cases.
Dobbs said the first student who tested positive was exposed outside school. At least 14 Corinth students are now in quarantine.
Newton County officials said they have put every possible measure in place to keep kids safe. During her first day Monday, fourth-grader Avery Mangum noticed a lot of new rules: She had to wear a mask, sit in an assigned seat and eat in her classroom, not the cafeteria.
Groups of kids were assigned areas of the playground where they had to stay during recess, and only a few were allowed on equipment at once, Avery said.
“At some time, one of the teachers came over and said there were too many kids on the monkey bars. There was four and there could only be three. It was really hard to socially distance while we were at recess,” she said. “Everyone wants to play with their friends.”
All kids were required to wear masks in the district, but many teachers had to remind students to wear them properly, she said.
“It wasn’t easy. All the people had their nose out, like only covering the mouth,” she said.
Avery’s brother, Cade, a 10th grader, said it wasn’t hard to wear a mask in class. But at the end of the day he had weight-lifting to prepare for baseball.
“It got really, really hot and hard to breathe,” he said. Team members did not have to wear masks while using the equipment but would put them back on after repetitions were over, Cade said.
The Mangum’s mother, Julie, said teaching social distancing is harder to enforce for younger kids than older ones. She teaches at an elementary school in Newton County, and they brought full-length pool noodles to show kids how far to stay apart.
“We’d be telling them, ‘This is how far away you need to be from your friends,’ ” she said. “Kids, they just don’t understand the space thing. It’s definitely a work in progress.'”
Thompson said she doesn’t think schools would be open if it’s truly unsafe. If she were to keep her three children at home, she would have to hire a babysitter to watch them during the day and then do home school lessons at night.
“It would be more detrimental not to send them, in my opinion, than for them to hang out and do the virtual learning,” she said. “I think they’re going to get more interaction at school, they are going to learn more at school.”
The Health Department said Monday that Mississippi, which has a population of about 3 million, has had at least 61,125 cases and at least 11,711 deaths from COVID-19 as of Sunday evening. That’s an increase of 572 confirmed cases and eight deaths from numbers reported the day before.
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.