Seeing Red

“If you are in a red zone, there is simply no way to safely open schools now,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said in a statement. “Orange zones will struggle as well. If you open schools in these areas, the chances are that those will likely close quickly when teachers, staff, and possibly students start getting sick in large numbers. If leaders in these counties want to reopen schools in the fall, they must bring down the level of virus, starting now. Yellow counties are in a slightly better position, but must still make hard choices.”

As of July 18th Mississippi is in the Red Zone. Let that sink in. We are living in the Red Zone and most every School District in our state has been working diligently to put plans in place to open in the next couple weeks.

But there’s more...According to the Mississippi Department of Health’s Guidelines for K-12 re-opening, many (most) Mississippi District Plans for a fall re-entry places students and educators in the “highest risk” category:

1. Lowest Risk: Students and teachers engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events.

2. More Risk: Small, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures, or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).

3. Highest Risk: Full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.

I recognize these decisions are complex, and plans for delaying re-entry come with great difficulty for parents and leave at-risk children even more days home in unfavorable environments.

In addition, I have a high respect for our Superintendents, School Boards, and leaders that are doing the best they can to navigate this space for the children and community they serve.

Perhaps, together, we could re-imagine some alternative paths forward:
*Delayed traditional restart at least until Mississippi is out of the “red zone.” Perhaps even until we are in the moderate “yellow” zone.” This would also afford districts more time to prepare their spaces to adequately social distance.

*Offer options that work to make 6 ft social distancing more of a reality: hybrid, staggered, rotating schedules.

*Consider a traditional/hybrid combination: Offer hybrid as an option. Allowing students that “need” to come back to traditional to return and allowing those that “can” opt into hybrid to do so in order to relieve some of the burden of “full” schools.

*Or what if we got creative? Used this as a “such a time as this” moment and re-imagined our education plans. Maybe it’s just the “right” time to consider, again, year round school as an option. With staggered track outs we could achieve fewer students in the building at one time. There are many other inherent benefits to year round school as well.

What if we worked together as a state to get us out of the Red Zone. What if we worked together for the next generation— “for the kids.”

Yesterday articles circulated about a recent White House Task force call to shut down gyms and bars in areas that are in the Red Zone. Many locals took to Facebook to come to the defense of keeping gyms open, noting social distancing and proper protocols are in place. However, many of the proponents of keeping gyms opened noted the vast difference in bars and gyms: The lack of social distancing in bars, lack of masks, clumps of people, after a few drinks inhibitions are down, people are even more “touchy.”

If we are going to get out of the Red Zone, we have to make difficult decisions. Decisions that will (yes) have an economic impact. Can we agree our health is our most valued resource? And make decisions with public health at the forefront?

I realize the debate is out about mask wearing. And some feel strongly it’s infringing on their rights. And others legitimately need an accommodation. But what if a statewide mask order could help us get out of the Red Zone and open school back up with more confidence? Could we agree to wearing masks then? This isn’t forever, it's to get us through this moment thing. 

As a pastor I am a listening ear for many. So many educators have reached out to me asking for my “prayers.” They are concerned. Fearful. Have high anxiety about being able to keep the students charged to their care “safe.” They are also greatly concerned for their own health. Parents, too. Wrestling with growing anxiety about sending their children back to school. What both educators and parents keep saying is: “I’m just hoping something will give--the legislature will step in and delay restart.”

If we can work together to relieve the burden on our Healthcare System, discharge patients, lower our Covid numbers, and get out of the Red Zone perhaps schools could safely be “open” by September or October?