Virtual learning ends, Vicksburg Warren School District continues mask mandate

Published 3:46 pm Friday, October 29, 2021

Students in the Vicksburg Warren School District will be required to return to the classroom in-person beginning Nov. 1  — with masks on their faces.

Discussion at Thursday’s meeting of the VWSD Board of Trustees centered around the district’s mask requirement, and when and how the mandate would be lifted. Several protesters were also in the audience, with signs against the mask requirement. However, the meeting did not include time for a public hearing.

“I will say that we have some constituents here, who have signs,” Board President James E. Stirgus Jr. said. “They say, ‘No more masks, Remove the mask mandate, Let our children breathe, My Kid My Choice.’ We’re not ignoring you out there. We see you, we hear you, but you won’t be able to speak.”

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District 1 Trustee Bryan Pratt presented his findings from the Mississippi State Department of Health website, saying any decision on masks should be made based on COVID-19 infection rates in Warren County. The percentage of positive tests, he said, is the best indication for how likely a student or staff member is to contract COVID-19 at school.

Pratt also recommended that the board continue to take into consideration CDC guidelines as it formed new policies to address the COVID-19 pandemic in local schools.

“I want to make sure the public understands that we do not take lightly requiring our students to wear masks. When we started the school year, the CDC did not recommend anyone that was vaccinated to wear a mask,” Pratt said. “It was great. Shortly after we started school, the Delta variant went through the roof in our community and the CDC changed their requirement. We also reacted and have required masks to be worn.”

While a mask requirement has been in place for months for VWSD faculty and staff, Pratt and other board members acknowledged the need to give the public a “light at the end of the tunnel” and devise a benchmark by which the use of masks can be regulated as needed.

Board Vice President and District 5 Trustee Sally Bullard expressed her concerns for immunocompromised teachers and those with immunocompromised loved ones. The solution for that issue, she said, was to include a provision that teachers can require masks in their individual classrooms, even if there is no blanket mask requirement from the district.

“We want them to continue to be able to teach and not be in any kind of danger in any way,” she said.

Stirgus presented to the board two separate letters in favor of keeping the mask mandate in place for now: one from Mississippi State Health Officer and one from the Vicksburg Ministerial Alliance. He also expressed some concern over upcoming school breaks and how that will impact case numbers.

“This is solely James E. Stirgus Jr.’s opinion: Let’s not prioritize freedom from COVID restrictions over freedom from COVID itself,” he said. “If you look at where we are now, as of tonight and starting tomorrow, the kids have 41 days before the new year. 22 days until Thanksgiving and 19 days and then Christmas break, which is 17 days.

“If you look at where I am coming from, with Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we see no surge, then I would more than happily vote to give you the choice to wear or not wear the mask in January. In the January meeting, if the spike is not there, I will be first to raise my hand. But I’m scared of the breaks coming up.”

Pratt proposed the idea of keeping the mask mandate in place through some time in January 2022. Many on the board were in agreement, but disagreed on the method in which such a procedure should be implemented. Also discussed was the idea of requiring individual schools or even classrooms to wear masks, if an outbreak occurs.

Above all, the board members encouraged vaccination against COVID-19 for all students and staff members.

“We have to come up with something that all five of us can live with, and I know none of us could live with burying a child in this district, so that’s why this is so hard for all of us,” Bullard said.

In the end, the motion was tabled until the next meeting, on Nov. 18.