In Mississippi, parents frustrated by neighbors who won’t mask up to keep kids safe


JACKSON, Miss. — For the third straight year, Nan Moak’s children are doing online school. Their school district, in Rankin County, no longer provides online learning, so Moak enrolled them in a private program.

That’s because Moak said she can’t face sending them to a school where masks aren’t worn, where officials are against safety precautions, where neighbors may be unwittingly passing the coronavirus to her family because they refuse to vaccinate. Her 12-year-old daughter is vaccinated, but her 10-year-old son isn’t yet eligible.

“Sixty-six deaths a day, nobody cares about that, that’s what it feels like. Your government does not care about that,” Moak said, referencing the state’s August covid death rate. “There are double digit deaths from covid daily … people are desensitized.”

Although deaths in the state have dropped dramatically in recent weeks, the state recently passed a grim milestone, as 10,000 of the state’s residents have died of Covid since the pandemic. Moak’s family talks about when the children will go back, but there’s no concrete answer. They just don’t know.

The strain on parents during this pandemic has been well documented. But some continue to live with a unique, additional layer of stress: trying to keep up covid-19 safety in communities, like here, in Mississippi, where many leaders and neighbors decided the pandemic wasn’t real, wasn’t serious or is just a part of life now.

Several weeks ago, Moak would have told you she was sad. Now, she’s exasperated. “I’m really disgruntled with Mississippi in general,” Moak says. “I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere. I feel there’s got to be pockets where it’s not as bad as where I’m living.”

The nation has reached a vaccination rate of 58 percent, with parts of the country hitting rates in the high 60s and low 70s and low case counts and deaths.

Other parts, including Mississippi, remain in pandemic limbo. Less than half the adults in the state have been vaccinated. Masking is inconsistent. The worst of the latest delta wave has crested, but infections and deaths here still outpace other states. The state still has the highest deaths per capita, with 975.1 deaths per 100,000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

For some Mississippi parents, the uncertainty of not knowing what precautions will be taken by their neighbors has left them exhausted and frustrated. They feel trapped inside a situation not of their own making: choosing not to leave the house except for necessities or keeping their children home from school or day care because they don’t feel it’s worth the risk to send them into a world largely unmasked and unvaccinated. And, in a state that has rushed to move past the pandemic despite the delta surge that put Mississippi first in the nation’s death toll in August, these parents feel increasingly isolated.

The situation impacts every decision every day. Take, for instance, grocery shopping. On a recent weekend during the post-work rush, one Kroger, right off the main interstate that runs through the capital city of Jackson, is packed, with three or four customers waiting at every checkout. Almost everyone is wearing a mask. Not 10 miles down the road, a nearly identical scene plays out at a different Kroger. But at this store, located in Flowood, the vast majority of shoppers are unmasked, despite a sign at the entrance requesting customers mask up before entering. (The state’s mask mandate was among the first to be lifted in March.)

This inconsistency is why Maisie Brown says she will not bring her 5-month-old daughter, Dmari, to any grocery store.

Brown works from home and lives with her mother, who works in a prison that has had coronavirus outbreaks. She thinks about the Mississippi parents whose children have died due to the coronavirus and is terrified that Dmari could end up in the hospital, despite all of her precautions. A trip to the store isn’t worth it, she said.

Overall, children up to age 18 account for about 18 percent of the covid cases in the state. The risk of death in children is low, but as of September, nine have died in Mississippi.

Keeping her baby safe from covid-19 has been stressful for Brown. A first-time mother with a full-time job, Brown is also a full-time student and intern. She works from home most of the time, and her family and Dmari’s father and his family help with the baby. Brown and her mother are both vaccinated, and they mask up to avoid bringing covid-19 home, but, she adds, “everybody works.”

“It’s just too risky right now to take her out like I would want to if it weren’t a pandemic, especially with our vaccination rates not where they should be,” Brown said. “So many people here … have not worn masks and refuse to wear masks. I don’t want one of these people to kill my baby. It’s that real.”

Jennifer Bryan, a pediatrician, said her family relaxed their mask-wearing this summer but when delta surged, they became more diligent and cut back on where they went and who they interacted with. As a family practitioner and the mother of three young children, she’s trying to juggle keeping her family safe with the day-to-day activities life brings.

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Bryan said families are weighing the plusses and minuses. “A lot of these kids, this is their third school year to be affected by the pandemic in some way. We’ve still got kids to raise. It really is a calculation that society is making and that parents are making as to how best to raise children.”

Trying to parent in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance during a constantly changing pandemic has put people through an emotional wringer. Several months ago, in the throes of delta, many parents were anxious, even angry, as they prepared to send their children to school, many of which did not require masks even as Mississippi’s packed hospitals issued desperate pleas for vigilance.

Three months into the school year, the mood has changed. Cases have dropped, and the school districts that did implement mask mandates have gone to mask optional. Even among the most vigilant of parents, there’s a resigned acceptance, Bryan said. For some Mississippi parents, it’s now a question of what they’re willing to do and how long they can do it to keep their family safe.

“I feel like my family is definitely in the minority as far as how we’re thinking about covid,” she said.

In a state like Mississippi, where the flood of normalcy came rushing back at a breakneck pace, it’s easy for some parents to feel like they’re alone in their choices, said Alisha Hardman, associate professor and extension family life specialist at Mississippi State University .

Hardman said she has experienced frustration as a parent in Mississippi. The mother of a 10-month-old who is not yet eligible for the vaccine, Hardman said trying to protect her from covid-19 has been “very frustrating” when she feels others in her community aren’t doing what they can to protect the vulnerable.

Brown, too, is angry at this point.

Brown wears a mask everywhere; going out in public without one feels unnatural. So she can’t help but notice those who don’t wear one. On a pre-baby trip to New Orleans, she said nearly everyone she encountered was masked. That changed when she crossed the Mississippi line, something she attributes to both culture and political affiliation. She sees a connection between the state’s support for Donald Trump and resistance to masks and vaccines.

“I don’t expect them to do anything that could slightly inconvenience them for the betterment of anybody else because they didn’t practice that during the election … that doesn’t magically kick in,” Brown said.

Seeing state leaders pushing back against vaccine mandates, low vaccination rates, and the flood of misinformation, particularly within the Black community in the state, has been difficult for Brown, who is Black.

“It’s really, really frustrating to know that we could be making so many more strides in this pandemic if people would do their part,” Brown said. “But people are not doing their part; people are refusing to do their part.”

Moak is also frustrated when she sees how others aren’t doing their part. On errands, she notices few are wearing masks. “At this point, I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ I guess they’ve decided it’s no big deal.’ “Then she sighs.

The family has “good days and bad days,” and Moak said she’s constantly questioning her choices.

“You just have to remind yourself why you’re doing it,” she said. “It’s not very hard to remind yourself if you turn on the news or Twitter.”

She and her family are committed to living and staying in Mississippi, but she’s craving a trip away; they haven’t left the state since the pandemic first hit in 2020, and Moak is starting to feel caged in. She longs to go to a cabin, to get out of town for a while and experience a change of scenery. With the price of the private online school, there’s not a lot of money left over, and she’s had to cancel her therapy sessions.

“Thank God for a journal and friends that will listen to you.”

Sarah Fowler is a freelance journalist based in Jackson, Miss.

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