Mask-wearing students, parents, teachers and administrators stepped into an academic year already singed by COVID-19 and now further threatened by its Delta variant. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Marjorie Settles graduated from Melrose High School in 1965. Nineteen years later, her daughter, Leslie Settles, became a Golden Wildcats graduate.

On Monday, mother and daughter were among other alums lined along the front halls of the school, waving as students entered for the first day of the 2021-22 Shelby County Schools (SCS) year.

Their welcoming presence was meant – in part – to convey some semblance of normalcy as mask-wearing students, parents, teachers and administrators stepped into an academic year already singed by COVID-19 and now further threatened by its Delta variant.

“I know that the Delta variant is really bad right now,” said Marjorie Settles, detailing that she “went to the old Melrose, and we went to the same building grades 1-12. We want our children to have that same sense of community. We were self-contained, and we want them to carry that on.”

When it comes to supporting Melrose High School, Marjorie Settles is a veteran. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Right now, safety relative to the pandemic is paramount.

“I hope our children can safely come to school every day,” said Settles, “but we just don’t know right now.”

The weekend report of new daily cases of COVID-19 in Shelby County pictured the virus’ continued spread, driven by the aggressive Delta variant. Monday’s new case number was 546, with four COVID-19 related deaths. More than 500 COVID-19 related patients are occupying area hospital beds, with pediatric cases alarmingly on the rise.

Shelby County Health Directive 24 was issued last week, mandating that schools county-wide impose mask-wearing for both students and staff while inside. Ahead of the directive, SCS already had set mask-wearing as its standard.

Additional protocols by SCS require temperature checks of all visitors, including parents and vendors. However, daily temperature checks for employees and students are no longer required.

“Return Stronger” is the watchword for Shelby County Schools (SCS) at the dawn of the 2021-22 school year and amid the threat of re-surging COVID-19 numbers. The backdrop includes support from some Republican state lawmakers for punishing school districts that choose to go forward with mask requirements.

SCS Supt. Dr. Joris Ray, who stopped at several schools on Monday during the #ReturnStronger bus tour, detailed the district’s posture regarding the required wearing of masks during an interview on MSNBC.

Later, he posted this on the SCS Twitter site:

“At the end of the day, I’m an ACADEMICIAN and I will not let political pressure drive District decisions or put children in harms way.”

Parent Toni Isom pulled up to Hamilton High School Monday morning openly “skeptical about the children returning to school right now. …

“We see that the numbers were off the charts in Mississippi, and our children aren’t really safe. I’m dropping my son, Antonio, off here at Hamilton High, and I’m concerned about him,” said Isom. “But my daughter is only 11, and she can’t get vaccinated yet. I am really worried about her.”

Toni Isom drove her children to school Monday, the first day of the 2021-22 school year. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Isom said her daughter assembled in the cafeteria with all returning Hamilton Elementary and Middle School students.

“I’m concerned for all the students,” said Isom. “The pediatric cases are going up, and that worries me.

“I read and try to keep up with developments. I know they are working on a vaccine that would be safe for our children under 12. I wish they would hurry up and make that vaccine available. Our younger children really have no way to fight the virus.”

Leslie Settles, proprietor of JLMJ Creations, embroiders the uniforms and outfits for the Melrose cheering squads and dance teams. “Pumped and ready” for a new school year filled with games, dances and special events, she, too, has deep concerns about whether “it is safe for our children to be back in school. …

“We are here to support our children in every way we can, and I hope they don’t have to return to the all-virtual model,” she said.

Leslie Settles’ jersey reflects her support for Melrose and the year she graduated. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

“But these new variants are so contagious, we just might have to.”

As of Monday morning, the number of active COVID-19 cases topped 6,000. According to county officials, the use of ICU beds is 92 percent. Acute care beds are 95 percent filled.