Tupelo • When rumors of positive COVID-19 cases started popping up across Lee County schools after classes resumed on Aug. 6, Brandi Dabbs started asking questions.
Dabbs has two students enrolled in Lee County Schools. Her oldest son, Dawson, is a senior at Saltillo High School. Everett is an eighth grader at Guntown Middle School.
Because Dawson suffers from asthma and has an autoimmune disease that makes even the common cold dangerous to his health, he opted to attend classes virtually rather than in person. He even had to quit the marching band.
Everett attended traditional in-person classes at Guntown for three days before switching to virtual learning after Dabbs heard rumblings that several students had been quarantined at Saltillo Elementary and there had been a positive case at Guntown Middle that led to quarantines, including a student she said was in Everett’s class.
But it wasn’t so much that a student in Everett’s class had been quarantined that bothered Dabbs; it was how she learned about it.
“We found out about that second hand,” she said. “Even though Everett had been in a class with that child while he had been in school three days prior, they didn’t notify us.”
Dabbs said she was told she wasn’t notified of her son’s potential exposure because he hadn’t been sitting directly in front of, behind or beside the student who tested positive for COVID-19.
Frustrated with what she believed was a lack of transparency from the school district, Dabbs posted to her personal Facebook page information about quarantines she’d heard about and asked others to share information if they had it.
They have. Dozens of parents and teachers from the Lee County School District and beyond reached out to Dabbs to express their concerns, fears, frustrations and word-of-mouth information about what they believe is a lack of openness about who and how many teachers and students in area schools might be sick.
Now, Dabbs has created a dedicated Facebook page, “North East Mississippi Schools Covid Data Transparency,” where she and other parents post information about local schools’ COVID-19 cases.
Dabbs said her goal since starting the page, which as of Tuesday has 243 followers, is simply to provide and advocate for transparency among area schools and the parents of students at them.
“It’s safety information, that’s all it is,” Dabbs said. “We’re only asking for quarantine and positive numbers on the school campuses so we can make educated decisions about the safety of our loved ones in our own families.”
Dabbs said she confirms any information she posts online with multiple sources. She maintains the identities of those who send her the information. None of it can be independently verified, and most of the cases and quarantines she has posted about have not been publicly acknowledged by the schools they involve.
According to Lee County Superintendent Coke Magee, the school district isn’t required by the Mississippi Department of Education to release information about the number of students and teachers quarantined. Although some school districts release that information – Tupelo Public School District, for example, sends weekly updates on the number of positive cases and quarantined members of the school district’s population – not all of them do.
But Magee stressed that just because the school district isn’t releasing that information regularly doesn’t mean they don’t have it, or that parents are being kept in the dark.
“We are keeping up with the data, we are reporting it to the Mississippi Department of Health Services, and we are contacting individuals based on their need to know on positive cases in our schools, on quarantines of students,” Magee told the Daily Journal, Tuesday.
Magee said the district sends home letters to parents of children who might have been exposed to COVID-19.
“The letters are sent home with the students on the day that those things happen,” Magee said. “If there was an individual with one of those in a class, group or team (where) letters should have been sent out and didn’t, then that was – I don’t know what to say other than it was an oversight.”
School personnel notify parents of students who have been in close contact with a student who tests positive for COVID-19, Magee added.
The superintendent stressed the state doesn’t require the school district to notify the public about case counts of students who tested positive or are quarantined.
“We are following the same (MSDH recommendations) that every other school district in the state is following,” Magee said. “We’re not trying to hide that we’re not doing that by not reporting daily or weekly those cases that we have to deal with.”
But Dabbs maintains that schools aren’t doing enough to keep kids safe and parents informed.
‘It’s all been so hush-hush’
Dabbs isn’t alone in her frustration with what she believes is a lack of information flowing from the school district.
A Lee County School District teacher, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job, told the Daily Journal they have received no information about active COVID-19 cases and quarantines inside their school, and it’s frustrating “knowing that we’re being kept in the dark on everything.”
“It’s all been so hush-hush,” said the teacher, whose identity and position within the school district the Journal has confirmed. “Everything’s been kept secret from us. We have had many students that have tested positive, and we don’t get told that anyone is even sick unless we have direct contact with them.”
The teacher said they and coworkers have, on multiple occasions, learned of students who tested positive for the virus from their parents, not from the school district itself.
“We have not heard from our superintendent,” the teacher said. “We have not heard from him. And that is so frustrating as a teacher.”
Prior to the 2020-21 school year, Barbara Bennett had six children enrolled in Lee County schools. Three are currently enrolled as distance learners, while the other three withdrew from the district to be homeschooled.
Bennett said she’s been personally unsurprised by what she’s seen take place in the district. She said she expected there would be a huge spike in cases once in-person classes began, although the district has confirmed no outbreaks within Lee County schools.
Still, Bennett said she didn’t want to put her kids at risk.
“We told our younger kids that there was no way they were going to go back to school,” she said. “We decided to home school them completely and not even do distance learning, because in the spring what they considered distance learning was really not any type of education at all.”
She allowed her older children to choose whether they’d like to remain enrolled in LCSD. Three of the four chose to do so.
The three LCSD students, ninth graders Andy and Alex Bennett and 11th grader Daniel Brown, are enrolled in virtual learning via Saltillo High School. They still have to visit the school intermittently for testing.
Bennett said she’s seen multiple employees at the school not wearing masks. Coupled with what she claims is a lack of communication between the school district and parents about the number of students and teachers who have contracted the virus, Bennett said it’s impossible to know just how much risk her children are taking by periodically visiting the school.
“How do we know that just going up and talking to the principal, I’m not exposing myself and thus taking it home and exposing my high-risk older son and my father who is high risk without knowing how many cases are in the school?” Bennett said. “Without knowing exactly what is going on, you automatically assume the worst-case scenario.”
Bennett said her kids feel unsafe when they have to visit the school, even though they wear masks and use hand sanitizer as soon as they leave. She feels it’s an environment they should never be forced into.
“They go in and they see these teachers that aren’t wearing masks, and if the teachers can’t be bothered to wear masks, they know that things aren’t being cleaned,” Bennett said. “They can see it with their own eyes. They can see that the procedures that are supposed to be in place are not being followed, so of course it makes them feel unsafe.”
When asking for information about active cases at the school, Bennett said she’s received a familiar answer: The schools can’t give that information to parents.
“For me, the fear is that without transparency we truly do not know what we’re walking into,” Bennett said. “It’s very frustrating as a parent because I feel completely unheard.”
A parent of an eighth grader at Shannon Middle School, speaking to the Daily Journal on condition of anonymity because of concerns over their child’s privacy, said that they were called to the middle school recently to pick up their student because they had been exposed to COVID-19.
When the parent arrived soon after, their child wasn’t in isolation; they were in the lunchroom eating with classmates. Several days later, that child tested positive for COVID-19.
Magee told the Daily Journal that there are isolation rooms on each campus for students who come to the school nurse sick and showing symptoms of COVID-19. For students like the aforementioned, who have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, parents are contacted by phone.
The parent called the LCSD’s handling of the pandemic so far, “horrible,” citing a lack of communication from both the school and the school district, other than the notification when their child has been ordered to quarantine for 14 days because of potential exposure to the virus.
“There’s so many known cases that are unknown to us, but they’re known to the school,” the parent said. “I just think they should keep us more informed.”
For Dabbs, that’s the point. She said the driving force behind her efforts – the Facebook page and all that goes along with it – is getting answers for other parents with kids that are vulnerable. She’s not looking for praise; she’s not looking for attention.
She’s looking for answers.
“Everybody is scared to say anything,” Dabbs said. “I’m not. I learned a long time ago from having a kid with special needs that if you don’t stand up for what’s right, nobody else will.”