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MOUND BAYOU, Miss. — On the first day of school, Vaketha Butler gathered her three children together and prayed for them. “Lord Jesus, just be a shield of protection over my babies,” she pleaded.

She finished fixing their hair and went to get her phone to take a first day of school picture, but by the time she found it they were already out the door, off to their first day of school in more than a year.

Within a couple of weeks, they were back learning at home.

In the first few weeks of school in August, 11,766 children across Mississippi had tested positive for Covid-19.

Ten students tested positive for Covid-19 at Northside High School, which serves both middle and high school students. The outbreak shuttered the entire school, forcing her two oldest kids — one in 12th grade and one in eighth — to pivot to virtual learning. Then her eighth grader had to quarantine again after another outbreak sent his entire grade home.

All Butler could feel was a relief. One of her children has asthma. Another has autism, but is incredibly outgoing; he loves giving hugs and talking to people and oftentimes struggles to keep his mask on. Butler believes parents have been disenfranchised by the lack of options for parents as the contagious delta variant rips through the state.

“I don’t like it at all. I don’t like when people make decisions for me anyway. I can make that choice and that decision myself,” she said.“When they sent them back this year it became scarier because it’s the delta variant.”

A school bus bears the sign “Face Masks Required” in a school parking lot in Shelby, Mississippi, on Aug. 5, 2021. Credit: Kelsey Davis Betz for The Hechinger Report

Conflicts over masking, mandatory vaccinations and confusing quarantine policies have made the 2021 back-to-school season one of the most fraught in the Covid era. Families already on the brink after managing crisis after crisis now find themselves once again yo-yoing between in-person and remote learning and making impossible decisions about whether to risk their children’s health for their education.

In Mississippi, school districts were required to resume in-person classes as the primary mode of teaching until rising Covid cases forced the state to backtrack. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempt to ban mask mandates in schools unleashed a chaotic array of legal battles across the state. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is engaged in an ongoing legal battle over his executive order to stop schools from requiring masks. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has become involved in investigating some states’ mask bans.

Though Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and the Republican-controlled legislature haven’t banned mask mandates outright, they’ve refused to issue any sort of mask mandate for schools.

“Most people that are in higher places, they have the funds to homeschool. They have more choices. With public schools, you really don’t have too many choices. It is what it is, whether your kid is safe or not.”

Loretta Nash, caregiver for a North Bolivar student.

In the meantime, many parents are angry, scared and desperate. “I think a lot of parents and families across the country are braced for impact for another ride on the roller coaster,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, an organization that advocates for children and families. “There is deep skepticism that we are going to be able to trust that kids are going to be kept safe, that Covid-19 mitigation strategies are going to be able to keep schools open.”

In Mississippi, a state with sharp racial disparities in health and education, the fight over whether to open schools, and how to protect kids, has put parents living in low-income, majority-Black communities like Mound Bayou in an especially tough position.

Butler knows well the toll that Covid-19 can take on a body. In January, her husband Khari Butler caught the virus and landed in the hospital with Covid pneumonia in both lungs.

“Had he not gone to the hospital, I think my husband probably would have died,” Butler said.

Colorful metal posts emblazoned with a list of the school’s values mark the entrance of I.T. Montgomery, an elementary school in Mound Bayou, Mississippi: Respectful. Responsible. Safe. Cooperative.

The painted-on words have been there for years, but on Aug. 5, 2021, they seemed painfully ironic.

It wasn’t just the first day of school. It was the first time that children in the North Bolivar Consolidated School District, situated in the rural Mississippi Delta, had set foot in a classroom in over a year. Kids wore new backpacks, fresh uniforms and masks. Children slipped behind protective shields surrounding each desk before teachers started up their first lessons.  

For Butler, it didn’t feel safe, or responsible, and they felt that those in charge had been anything but respectful of the worries of parents not quite ready to send their children back.

Although it’s still unclear how the pandemic has affected children’s learning, the pressure for Mississippi schools to get students back in front of teachers has been intense.

Students sit behind shields on their first day of school at North Side High School in Shelby, Mississippi on Aug. 5, 2021. Credit: Kelsey Davis Betz for The Hechinger Report

Mississippi ranked first in the nation in improvement on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, but with just 32 percent of fourth graders scoring proficient or above in reading, it also was coming from behind many states.

Districts in the Delta region of Mississippi, which has the highest child poverty rate in the U.S., have the farthest to come to catch up to their peers nationally. Before the pandemic, North Bolivar Consolidated School District received an F on The Mississippi Statewide Accountability System, which measures academic achievement. In the 2018-19 school year, 19 percent of students in the district scored proficient in math while 21 percent showed proficiency in English. Scores were even worse the preceding year, with just 14.6 percent proficient in math. No data was available for 2019-20.

The three schools that comprise the district are spread out among three towns in Bolivar County, Mound Bayou, Duncan and Shelby. Rows of cropland flank either side of the two-lane highway that runs through the county, and fewer than 2,000 people live in each of these towns — tiny Duncan has a population of just 372. The shops lining each short Main Street are mostly boarded up. Now, the lifeblood of these communities is in their schools.

The same factors that impact children’s learning here — poverty, lack of resources in rural communities and systemic racism — also impact health outcomes.

A 2020 CDC study characterized the Mississippi Delta as having “high prevalence of chronic disease and mortality rates that significantly exceed the national average.” In 2017, deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease were the highest in the nation.

Pre-existing health problems and the scarcity of hospitals in the Delta allowed Covid-19 to wreak havoc in communities. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 9,000 Mississippians have died from Covid, including 143 in Bolivar County, where Mound Bayou is located. In the first few weeks of school, which started for most districts in early August, 11,766 children across the state had tested positive for Covid-19, as had 2,383 teaching staff. In the week of August 16-20 alone, 28,990 students were in quarantine, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Health.

“State leadership is idly watching as Mississippi’s health care services are strained and exhausted,” wrote Mississippi Congressman Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, in a guest column for the Clarion Ledger.

Related: Why Black families are choosing to keep their kids remote when schools reopen

A classroom door at North Side High School in Shelby, Mississippi on Aug. 5, 2021. Credit: Kelsey Davis Betz for The Hechinger Report

The dilemma over whether to bring children back to school is particularly fraught in majority- Black communities like North Bolivar where Covid initially hit the hardest. Although the proportion of Black people dying of Covid-19 is now on par with white people in Mississippi, at the beginning of the pandemic, 72 percent of those who died from Covid were Black.

Health hazards like sky-rocketing infection rates are one of the reasons Loretta Nash wishes she’d been given more flexibility when deciding whether or not to send her goddaughter back to in-person learning at I.T. Montgomery.

Her godchild, who she cares for full time, entered second grade this year. It was the first time the little girl had been in a classroom since kindergarten. “I am excited that they can get back in school. I think it’s a plus, especially for the smaller kids because they learn better in school,” Nash said.

But, while Nash loves the school and trusts the principal, she wishes virtual classes or some kind of hybrid learning had been an option from the start. Because, when it comes down to it, Nash doesn’t feel like the people calling the shots at the highest level really cared about her godchild’s wellbeing.

“Most people that are in higher places, they have the funds to homeschool. They have more choices. With public schools, you really don’t have too many choices. It is what it is, whether your kid is safe or not,” Nash said.

On Aug. 19, three weeks into the school year in North Bolivar, the Mississippi Board of Education amended its original policy decision and allowed districts to use virtual learning, citing surging Covid-19 cases.

The decision came as the hospital system in Mississippi teeters on the brink of collapse. Some 42 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, compared to a national vaccination rate of almost 55 percent. Infection rates have soared and hospitals have run out of ICU beds. The numbers are better in Bolivar County, where 50 percent of residents have been fully vaccinated. Still, thousands of new Covid-19 cases have been reported every day statewide since the beginning of August.

In an email, Jean Cook, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) said that, in addition to allowing virtual learning, “MDE has provided guidance to districts to help them develop their plans for the 2021-22 school year. Federal law requires school districts to seek public comment on their plans and take such comments into account in the development of their plans.”

“Local school districts are in charge of instructional and scheduling decisions,” the statement continued. “MDE encourages parents to communicate with their district leaders about local decisions affecting their community.”

Although it’s now allowed, hybrid scheduling is still logistically very difficult to pull off, said Maurice Smith, superintendent of the North Bolivar Consolidated School District.

“In our situation, a hybrid schedule is something that’s almost impossible for us to implement and stay within (MDE’s) guidelines because of facility needs and transportation needs,” Smith said.

“I just — at what point will they understand that this is a risk? Why keep kids in school when you can put them back in virtual learning?”

Vaketha Butler, a parent in the North Bolivar Consolidated School District

Across the board, striking the right balance between offering virtual learning to ease the concerns of parents who worry about their children’s health and offering in-person learning to address the needs of parents who want their children back in the classroom has been extremely complex, said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

“One could easily say, ‘Well gosh, it’s just like the hybrid from last year.’ Well, it’s really not. [Educators] thought they were going to be back in school and so the planning that went into this year looks different,” Pruitt said.

There’s also the issue of the nationwide teacher shortage.

“You look at it and say, ‘Well there’s all that federal money that came in so money shouldn’t be a problem, hire more people. You can have some in virtual and some [teaching face-to-face].’ The problem is we do have this national teacher shortage,” Pruitt said. “It’s easy to say, ‘We’ll go hire more people.’ You don’t if there’s not enough people.’”

Meanwhile, Covid-19 continues to spread through Mississippi schools. By early September, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported that an additional 8,869 children and 1,724 school staff had been infected with Covid-19.

Related: ‘We just pick up the pieces’: As a new school year starts, this Mississippi Delta community is fighting for survival

Mary Miller, a local doctor who recently retired after spending 11 years of her 42-year-long medical career in public health, said that the data doesn’t give a clear picture of the transmission of Covid-19 among children: It’s self-reported by school district employees, and many private schools don’t report infection data at all. Not having that comprehensive data, “completely throws [tracking the spread of Covid] off the rails,” Miller said.

“If you don’t have accurate data, then you don’t know if you’re getting ahead or behind,” she added. “You don’t know if you’re doing everything that’s necessary to protect the kids or if you’re not getting even close to it.”

Regardless, Miller thinks the safety protocols in Mississippi schools need to be much stronger than they are now.

“In a perfect world, we would pull out all the stops. The teachers would be vaccinated before they walked in that classroom. They would be masked, the kids would be masked and anybody over 12 would have a shot,” she said. “But I realize I would be run out of many places in Mississippi for feeling that way.”

Many educators agree with her, and now most districts in Mississippi require masks. Still, some have expressed frustration that state leaders haven’t done more to listen to and protect kids and teachers. But many are afraid to speak on the record with the press for fear of retribution from the Department of Education.

Floor stickers show students where to stand to stay socially distanced at North Side High School in Shelby, Mississippi on Aug. 5, 2021. Credit: Kelsey Davis Betz for The Hechinger Report

In Bolivar County, climbing Covid-19 case numbers have confirmed Butler’s fears.

Both children managed not to get infected during the first outbreak and returned to school, and the eighth grader has so far tested negative for Covid-19 after the second one.

While they’re home, Butler said virtual learning goes smoothly. Her kids tune into school through Google Meet and interact with their teachers in real time. During P.E. they’re on a video call with a teacher who sees that they get out of their chairs and exercise.

Many children struggled last year while all classes were virtual, but Butler’s kids maintained A’s and B’s.

This is the way she wishes it would stay. Continuing to send kids back into school despite the frequent outbreaks and disruptions feels reckless to Butler. She said she’s scared the entire time they’re at school. Classes have only been back in session for a little more than a month, but she’s already at a loss.

“I just — at what point will they understand that this is a risk?” she asked. “Why keep kids in school when you can put them back in virtual learning?”

This story about kids back in school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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