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The challenges of returning to in-person classes in a state spiking with COVID-19

Across the U.S., school mask mandates are dividing communities. In Mississippi, a state hard hit by a coronavirus surge, the Oxford School District had ruled masks were optional for students and staff. But the school superintendent, Bradley Roberson, overruled them, mandating face coverings. The move has drawn criticism from many parents and the board. Roberson joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    Across the country, school mask mandates are dividing communities.

    This was the scene following a school board meeting in Williamson County, Tennessee, last night when medical professionals were heckled and threatened for recommending masks in their schools.

    In Mississippi, a state that's also hard hit by this coronavirus surge, the Oxford School District originally ruled masks were optional for students and staff. But the school superintendent overruled them, mandating face coverings, regardless of vaccination status. This move has drawn widespread criticism.

    And that superintendent, Bradley Roberson, joins me now.

    Superintendent, great to have you on the NewsHour.

    Help me understand what happened here. The school board said, we're going to leave it up to the parents and teachers and staff to decide whether they wear masks inside schools. But you overruled them. Why?

  • Bradley Roberson, Oxford School District:

    Well, we were gathering data from across the state. There are a couple of school districts that start in the state of. Mississippi earlier than the rest of us due to a modified calendar. I have received confirmation from a school district in South Mississippi, the Lamar County school district, that they already had five outbreaks in one of their high schools, four outbreaks in another high school, had to transfer or move both those districts to virtual learning and they had not even been in school ten days as of yet.

    We were hit really hard last year. Our student academic progress was hit hard due to the high number of quarantines that we had in our schools. It may be surprising for you to know that Oxford School District students last year missed 19,558 days of school due to quarantine alone. It affected 2,259 students in the oxford school district. Based on that, it's very important for us to do whatever we can to keep kids in school because I think it's clear virtual learning does have benefits but we do a better job across the country of teaching kids when they're in the presence of our great teachers.

  • William Brangham:

    So you make the decision that, no, in fact, you think it's the smartest move to have everyone wear masks in school. And what was the reaction to that?

  • Bradley Roberson:

    The emotions were mixed, obviously. We do have a lot population of the Oxford community that were upset that masks were going to be mandated. But there's also a population of people in our community that were, you know, glad I took the extra step. Again, to me, it's about keeping our kids in school so that we can provide them the best education that we can.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you help me understand this? I mean, this is an airborne respiratory virus and we know a little piece of fabric over our faces can in part help protect us. Do you have a sense as to why this has sparked such fury among some people?

  • Bradley Roberson:

    You know, from what I hear, it's just that they feel like it's a violation of their freedoms to require individuals, and they would like to be able to make that decision for themselves.

    You know, the difficult position we're put in as educational leaders is we're not health professionals by any means. We're educators, right? We're professional educators. We know how to educate kids.

    So being in this very difficult situation has become very politicized is hard for leaders all across our community, our state and country. And it's not just educational leaders, it's leaders in any capacity. So, you know, again, it's just a difficult time for us all.

  • William Brangham:

    And, so far, have people been following the mandate?

  • Bradley Roberson:

    Yes, sir, they have. You know, we've had a few hiccups here and there but for the most part all our stakeholders have been very responsible and follow the mandate as we've requested.

    Let me just say, I'm so thankful for that. You know, as a leader, it does mean something to a leader when you see your constituents that even though they're upset, even though that may disgruntle — be disgruntled about it, that they're following the lead, and I really, really appreciate that.

  • William Brangham:

    Your mandate to wear masks in schools expires in a couple of days. According to all the public health data I've seen out of Mississippi, this surge doesn't seem to be anywhere near over.

    Do you think you may have to extend this mandate going forward?

  • Bradley Roberson:

    Sure, that's where we are now is trying to determine the next steps, but you're right, the cases continue to rise, they continue to rise in the state of Mississippi, and, unfortunately, they continue to rise in Lafayette County.

    So, yes, I do think it is a distinct possibility that we will need to extend the mask mandate moving forward for another period of time, but we are continuing to analyze all of the data right now. And that's not just data from myself, that's data from having conversations with other superintendents across the state of Mississippi because, again, we're all in this together and we're all trying to make decisions what's best for our children.

  • William Brangham:

    All right. Bradley Roberson, school superintendent in Oxford, Mississippi — thank you so much and best of luck to you.

  • Bradley Roberson:

    Thank you.

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