TUPELO • As schools prepare to reopen in August, the question Tupelo Public School District Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou hears most often is “Will my child be required to wear a mask?”
Picou said during Tuesday’s TPSD Board of Trustees meeting that he recommends face coverings like masks and face shields be worn “where applicable and feasible” when schools reopen in August.
Ultimately, TPSD will follow the Mississippi Department of Education’s guidelines related to face coverings. MDE’s next Board of Trustees meeting is scheduled for June 11 at 10 a.m.
Tupelo Schools intends to provide a concurrent education model, offering both in-person classes and distance learning options for parents who are uncomfortable with or unable to send their children back to school.
While no decision about requiring masks has been finalized, the return to in-person instruction will involve “students and staff wearing face masks or face shields where applicable and feasible,” Picou said, particularly when physical distancing is not possible.
A recent parent survey gauged TPSD parents’ interest in returning to traditional school versus distance learning and the response to potential masking requirements. The district received 3,769 responses to that survey.
When asked if parents planned to send their children back to school in August, 1,982 responded “yes,” 269 responded “no,” and 1,459 responded “unsure.”
In response to the question “Will you send your child to school if masks are required?” 1,966 responded “yes,” 578 responded “no,” and 1,191 responded “unsure.”
Some 1,795 parents said they were “very likely” to participate in a distance learning model if given the choice, while 414 said “not likely” and 1,528 said “maybe depending on the quality of the program.”
A similar survey was completed by 536 teachers across the district.
Of those teachers, 439 said they would be willing to wear a face mask while 81 responded “no.”
When asked about their level of comfort in terms of returning to school for in-person classes in August, 150 responded “very comfortable,” 250 responded “somewhat nervous” and 145 responded “very nervous.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Picou cited CDC guidelines and consistent messaging from North Mississippi Health Services experts that “COVID-19 mitigation requires increased hand washing, social distancing practices and face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 where you can not abide social distancing.”
“Let’s be honest with each other – face covering will be a challenge for our staff, our parents and our students,” Picou said. “I also know regardless of what our medical experts say and what is written in well-respected medical journals, there are many opinions about face coverings. This topic has also become very political.”
Picou said his goal is to open schools safely in August with as many children in attendance as possible, give parents educational options and not be forced to close a school for even one day.
He added that his recommendation is based on a desire for the district to do whatever it can to keep staff and students safe, and achieving that goal may result in keeping parents and grandparents safe as well.
“As a community, we will move beyond COVID-19,” Picou said. “When that hallelujah moment comes, we will all look back and ask whether or not we were willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve an extraordinary result, which would be the absolute mitigation of COVID-19 in the schools of the Tupelo Public School District.”
Masking was also addressed recently during TPSD’s second digital Parent Advisory Group meeting on June 5.
When asked about parents who are adamant about their children not wearing masks, Picou said it will be a “balancing act” to develop a plan that keeps everyone safe and allows schools to reopen without an alternating A/B schedule.
North Mississippi Health Services infectious disease specialist Dr. Mindy Prewitt was on hand to address parents’ concerns, as well.
“In the health care environment, it is all or none,” Prewitt said about wearing face coverings. “Either you do or you don’t. If you are trying to reduce the risk, it has to be a uniform, compliant situation. If one person is infected, that one person can potentially infect in clusters to those in prolonged exposure.”
The district previously said that it recognizes some parents will send their children to school with masks, and that will be allowed even if masks are not required. Picou said on Friday the topic of “mask shaming” will be addressed and outlined in discipline and expectations procedures.
The district’s full blueprint for reopening schools will be released on June 15, taking into consideration feedback from the community and staff, along with current CDC guidelines and the number of COVID-19 cases in Mississippi.