Vicksburg Warren School District votes to extend masks, close schools for five days

Published 5:11 pm Thursday, January 13, 2022

An increase in COVID-19 cases among faculty and students has led the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees to institute a district-wide quarantine.

At a special meeting Thursday, the school board discussed its COVID-19 response and voted to institute a district-wide quarantine from Friday through Tuesday. Students will return to school on Wednesday, Jan. 19. All athletic events, practices and school-related activities during the quarantine period are also canceled.

The VWSD’s decision came after Warren County’s two private schools, Vicksburg Catholic Schools and Porter’s Chapel Academy, made similar decisions earlier Thursday.

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The VWSD board also voted to extend its mask mandate through Feb. 15, with board member Kimble Slaton being the sole nay vote. The board voted to follow recent CDC recommendations to allow for a five-day quarantine if a person tests positive for COVID-19.

During the closure, superintendent Chad Shealy said the VWSD’s schools will be deep-cleaned and sanitized. Due to the three-day weekend that was already planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, students will only lose two days of school. Those will be covered by executive leave time. Educator pay will not be affected by the closure.

Shealy said there are currently 164 positive cases among students, and 374 students quarantined due to exposure. Staffing issues were also mentioned, with Shealy stating that at one VWSD school, 18 substitute teachers were requested and only one showed up to work.

“These are the highest numbers we’ve seen all school year,” Shealy said. “The county’s numbers are steadily rising as well.”

Part of the issue, according to Board President James Stirgus Jr., is that some schools are not complying with the district’s mask mandate.

On visits to campuses throughout VWSD, Stirgus said he’d seen students and teachers in various states of mask-wearing but was not aware of any disciplinary actions taken.

“I’ve seen some schools with very little masks, some with some masks, some with masks,” Stirgus said. “I can’t blame the kids for not wearing a mask if their teacher is not wearing a mask. I cannot expect a teacher to wear a mask if their principal is not wearing a mask.

“If you have seen somebody that has not worn their mask, I will give you everything in my wallet if you have written them up.”

Slaton, who voted against extending the district’s mask mandate prior to the Christmas holiday, said he agreed with Stirgus’ concerns.

Slaton also pointed out that the 164 reported COVID-19 cases are approximately two percent of the district’s total enrollment — less if teachers are factored into that number.

“If we’re going to make sure every kid in these schools has to wear a mask, we need to make sure they wear the damn things,” Slaton said. “There are exceptions to every rule, but if you can ensure me that my child is not going to get contaminated by the kid next to them and nothing is going to be done about that, I’ll vote for this.”

The target percentage of infected students for the district to return to remote-only learning is 15 percent. Shealy did mention the possibility of a hybrid learning model returning, stating that the Mississippi Department of Education had discussed it in a recent meeting.

Prior to the votes on the new policies, Stirgus praised the board for its decision-making.

“In December, we had predicted that this probably would happen with an outbreak,” Stirgus said. “I am so thankful that we had the courage to continue the mask mandate.

“If we had not, could you imagine where we would be now? I am very proud that the board did stand up and do what we thought was right for 6,990 students instead of for 10 students.”