DESOTO COUNTY, Miss. (Mississippi Today) – A group of DeSoto County School District parents who are also physicians say their district — the largest in Mississippi — has ignored their advice on COVID-19 policies and has not been transparent or inclusive in setting its protocols, which include no mask requirement for students and teachers.
These doctors mostly work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The hospital treats children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases — the very conditions that make them more susceptible to severe illness and outcomes from COVID-19.
As parents, they say they are seeing the effects of the district’s choices in their own homes.
Dr. Jessica Gartrell spoke with Mississippi Today while her kindergartener and third grader were home sick with COVID-19.
“My 5-year-old is very sick. He has high fever, he’s shaking like crazy, curled up in the fetal position — he’s miserable,” said Gartrell, a board certified pediatrician and pediatric hematologist/oncologist.
As a doctor, she knows the risk for severe outcomes if a child contracts COVID-19: hospitalization, pneumonia, and Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C), a serious and sometimes fatal condition in children that usually occurs four to six weeks after COVID infection.
But DeSoto County remains one of only 16 districts in the state that does not currently require masks in school buildings.
The district said in an emailed statement to Mississippi Today that it considered advice from medical professionals in developing its protocols for the school year and received inconsistent medical guidance and “different viewpoints.”
But when asked which medical professionals provided guidance that differs from recommendations by the Mississippi State Department of Health and other major medical groups in the state, district officials wouldn’t name them. Superintendent Cory Uselton referred the question to school board attorney Jim Keith.
Keith said the district took into consideration input from community members via its dedicated COVID-19 email address. Some of that input was from doctors and other health care professionals in the community, he said.
“(Some of those doctors) don’t want to be on the forefront, they just simply provided their input and said, ‘School district, you make the decision,’” Keith said.
This year, Gov. Tate Reeves did not issue a mask mandate in schools as he did last year. This meant the decision, which has become a contentious political hot potato, was tossed into the laps of superintendents and school board members.
Gartrell, along with fellow parents and St. Jude physicians Drs. Matthew Rees and Michael McNeil, also want to know who these medical professionals are.
“The pediatrics community in northern Mississippi has a unified voice on this (masking). This is what works: wearing masks when you can’t be socially distanced and getting vaccinated if you’re able,” said McNeil, a pediatrician and pediatric hematology-oncology fellow at St. Jude. “The district keeps saying, ‘There are a lot of opinions on both sides,’ but what we are recommending is based on evidence. That is not opinion.”
Dr. Desh Sidhu, a pediatrician and a board member of the state’s pediatrician association, has been practicing in the DeSoto County area for more than 40 years. He says he has tried repeatedly to talk to the superintendent and other district officials to no avail.
He even offered to provide vaccinations for eligible students in the schools.
“All the district would need to do is get permission from the parents and we will take care of everything else — the logistics, the paperwork, the staff, everything,” Sidhu said. “But we have just met a dead end.”
The district said it has held no vaccination drives or events to date.