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Coast parents are pulling kids from schools over mask policies. 'A no-win situation.'

Gulfport Sun Herald logo Gulfport Sun Herald 8/11/2021 Isabelle Taft and Isabella Murray, The Sun Herald

Aug. 9—Ryan Bradley left the Harrison County School Board meeting Wednesday night with a plan.

Now that the board had voted to leave masks optional for students and staff in the Coast's largest school district, he would start searching for a home to buy inside district lines. He's hoping to be able to move and pull his two sons from the Long Beach School District, where masks are required, within a month.

"I tend to lean more on the side of freedom than anything else," he said. "I'm also concerned about what kind of precedent does that set to our children, when our children begin to be submissive to these mandates."

Kristin Stachura Allen walked out of the same meeting with a different plan. On Thursday morning, she started the process to withdraw her three kids from Harrison County schools and move them to a private school that requires masks.

"I've seen what it can do," said Allen, who recently saw the majority of her office and her mother come down with COVID-19 as the delta variant surged in Mississippi. "I'm just not willing to allow them to cram my kids into school with no measures, precautions, whatever. Not even for me, but for other people."

The sharply polarized responses to the school board's decision highlight how controversial mask requirements have become 16 months into the pandemic. For Coast superintendents and school boards making COVID-19 safety plans this school year, any decision is likely to alienate a significant number of parents.

And some Coast parents, like Allen and Bradley, are making decisions about where their children should go to school based on mask policies.

Last year, because Gov. Tate Reeves mandated masks for all schools, there were no stark differences between Coast districts when it came to mask rules. Parents could choose to send their children to public school, in-person and masked or virtual, or they could homeschool them or send them to private school, where mask rules were less often enforced.

Where are masks optional?

This year, masks remain optional for students and staff in Jackson County, as well as Harrison County. Eight other districts in the region have implemented mask mandates, almost all within the last two weeks as cases surged.

Gov. Reeves has "no intention" of instating any restrictions for school this fall, which has made mask decisions difficult for most districts.

The Ocean Springs School District on Tuesday voted during a special meeting to mandate masks. Days before that, Director of Student Services Grant Dickinson said the district wanted to follow "whatever the governor's orders" were.

"Right now, he's not mandating it. There's a recommendation, and we want people to have a choice," Dickinson said, "It's truly very difficult to enforce under the guideline of, you have to wear a mask if you're not vaccinated. We feel it's a bit of an infringement. We're not mask police, we're educators. And so it's too difficult to really enforce it."

Jackson County Superintendent Dr. John Strycker said he was aware both of parents trying to move their kids into the district because of the mask policy, and of district parents withdrawing their kids to home school them, but that he did not have specific figures for either group.

By Thursday afternoon, he had visited every school in the district. He estimated that in the Vancleave and East Central attendance centers, about 10% of kids were wearing masks, while in St. Martin, about 30% were masked.

"It's telling me where the parents stand regarding their own flesh and blood," Strycker said. "Does the CDC federal government love these children here in Vancleave more than the parents here in Vancleave? I think the parents love their children more than some government agency in D.C."

With the spread of the more contagious delta variant, the CDC has recommended universal masking for adults and children in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Strycker said the mask issue was "unwinnable" for school policy makers in Mississippi.

"In regarding the masks, of course it's a no-win situation," he said. "People are adamantly one side of the other, and you eventually have to make a decision."

In Pass Christian, Superintendent Dr. Carla Evers made the decision last week to require masks in her district.

In an interview Friday, she said she felt confident that it was the right decision for students as a whole. But last year, the mandate from Reeves had made things simpler for district leaders.

"I don't want to say what I think the governor ought to do, should do, because I'm not sitting in his seat," Evers said. "Once something's a law, you're bound to follow state law. So would it make it easier for us, because it would take the decision out of our hands, yes."

Emotional pleas at school board meeting

Ahead of the school board meeting, D'Iberville mother Nicole Lott said that if the board voted to enforce a mask mandate, she was planning to have her third-grade son stay in-person learning for a while to see how the district enforces the requirement in individual classes.

Lott home-schooled her second-grader last year because of the mask mandate in place within the Harrison County School District — depending on how strict mask regulations might be this year, she was ready to pull her son out again.

"If it's going to be a hard-pushed matter where it has to be worn the entire school day, then we definitely will be going back to what we did last year," Lott said.

Colette Lister is another Harrison County parent who was prepared to take her children out of school if the board had approved a mask mandate. Lister and her daughter Ruby both spoke during the public comment section, visibly emotional as they stood to speak prepared remarks.

Ruby, an eighth-grader, was willing to forgo her place on the cheer team at school if the board mandated masks, opting instead to be home schooled by her mother.

"I'm 100% willing to be pulled out and be home schooled. I'm also willing to give up cheer so I don't have to wear a mask every day. I can't imagine having to cheer with a mask," she said.

After a mask-optional decision was made by the board, Colette said she was relieved.

"It's been exhausting. Fighting for my kid's freedoms," she said. "I fasted all day today and prayed. So I feel very humbled that God listened to my prayers."

Had the verdict been different, Colette said she would have "absolutely" pulled her three children out of the district.

"I would rather not home school, to be completely honest. I want them to go to school. I want them to see their friends and their teachers and participate in cheer and gymnastics and my son plays football," she said. "So it was not a decision that I came to easily. But I just feel like it was the right thing."

Limited options for most

For most Coast parents, no matter how strongly they feel about masks, moving their kids to a new school, especially with a few days' notice, is not a realistic option.

Allie Pace moved to Biloxi from Michigan three weeks ago because she and her husband wanted to live in a "more conservative state" that had publicly said it was not going to have masks for the following school year. She was disheartened by the fact that the issue was up for debate in Harrison County.

"To hear that it's up for debate the night before kids start school is suspect at best," she said.

At the Bay-Waveland School District, where masks were optional when school started last week, Superintendent Dr. Sandra Reed said she had neither heard from parents who wanted to pull their kids from the district nor from parents who wanted to transfer in. On Monday, after this story was published, Reed announced a mask mandate starting Tuesday, Aug. 10.

Sandra Norwood, a graduate of Harrison County schools and a nurse with the Air National Guard, attended two school board meetings this week to urge the Harrison County board to make masks mandatory.

She went to Office Depot and made a big poster with a chart showing that mask wearing and social distancing lowers the risk of COVID-19 transmission. She referred to it during her speech in public comment period Wednesday night.

When the meeting ended, Norwood left the room in tears.

On Thursday, she said she hadn't seriously considered pulling her kids from their school. When she and her husband have to work, she often relies on neighbors and family to help take care of her kids, and she wants to make that as convenient as possible by keeping them in school. She pays taxes in Harrison County, and she loved her time as a student in the district.

She's hoping to find out she was on the wrong side of the mask issue.

"I'm just praying the kids have a safe school year," she said. "I hope that everyone does great, and the side that won—if anyone can be a winner in this — the side that won, I just hope, I just hope that they were right."

This article is supported by the Journalism and Public Information Fund, a fund of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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