An entire Mississippi school district is going virtual after Pearl River Central High School ordered 40% of its student body to quarantine after just one week of school. Classes began at the Carriere, Miss., school on Aug. 5 with no mask mandates. Since then, the high school has quarantined 394 members of its roughly 1,000-member student body either for COVID-19 exposures or after testing positive for the virus..
“In person learning will be suspended for all students in the Pearl River County School District beginning on August 16 due to the increased spread of the COVID virus in our schools and community,” the Pearl River County School District Relaunch Plan, revised today, now says. “The suspension of in-person learning will go through August 27 or September 6.”
For the second time this week, the Pearl River County School Board is holding a meeting at 5:30 p.m. to decide how long virtual schooling will last. Board members punted on quarantine plans during the last emergency meeting on Monday, but did reinstate a mask mandate after starting classes without them.
Despite an all-time high of 4,412 new COVID-19 cases reported statewide today, Gov. Tate Reeves insisted in a tweet today that “there will be no lockdowns and there will be no statewide (mask) mandates”—despite warning from hospital leaders that the health care system is on the brink of “failure.” Despite mandating masks in schools statewide last year, the governor told WLOX’s Dave Elliot today that such decisions will be up to local leaders.
“The reality is there is an opportunity for them to recognize how bad the cases are, how many vaccinated they have in their school among kids and employees, and they can make that decision on the local level,” the governor said. Children under 12 still cannot get vaccinated and just 12% of people ages 12-to-15 and 17% ages 16-to-17 are vaccinated statewide.
‘Here We Are’
By the time of Monday night’s emergency meeting, the Pearl River Central High School had already quarantined two cohorts, including the school’s band. Last year, the district adopted the Centers For Disease Control’s recommendation that schools go all-virtual for two weeks if three or more cohorts are quarantined at once, but it never became necessary last fall because the school never had to quarantine three cohorts at once.
After Lumpkin told members that one or more schools in the district could reach three cohorts quarantined by Tuesday, they opted against adopting a trigger policy.
“We never went to three or more cohorts at any campus last fall,” board member Herrin said. “And three days into school, here we are.”
The members instead voted during Monday night’s meeting to continue quarantining affected groups without going virtual no matter how many cohorts are sent home in any one school. Pearl River Central High School reached three cohorts quarantined on Tuesday. It has since grown to include at least 10 cohorts as of today.
Statewide, the schools that have begun classes identified 296 teachers or staff members with positive cases of COVID-19 last week and 943 cases among students, the Mississippi State Department of Health reports. During the same period, schools quarantined 4,435 students and 382 teachers or staff members. School cases and quarantines are far ahead of where they were last fall.
‘There Are No Right Answers’
At the earlier emergency meeting on Monday, Pearl River County School District Superintendent Alan Lumpkin revealed that, throughout the school district, at least 10 employees had already tested positive for COVID-19 along with 45 students at the time. He told board members that 33 employees and 284 students had been ordered to quarantine districtwide. In the three days since, the district’s cases and quarantines have escalated significantly.
At Monday night’s virtual school-board meeting, Lumpkin asked the school to consider adding a mask mandate and to decide what to do if three or more “cohorts” in a single school (meaning groups such as sports teams or entire classrooms) are quarantined for COVID-19.
“We understand the social and emotional needs of our students and employees right now, and that’s what makes this so very difficult when you’re talking about face coverings and interrupting learning. There’s so much information out there on both sides right now. … There are no right answers. There are solutions to move forward,” the superintendent said during the Zoom call.
Other school districts in Pearl River County began the year with mask mandates, including the Picayune School District. At Picayune Memorial High School in the Picayune School District, flags flew at halfstaff on the first day of school for Megean Haleigh Millis, a biology teacher there in her early 20s who died of COVID-19 on Aug. 4; and for Jenna Lyn Jensonne, a 16-year-old Picayune Memorial High student who died of the virus on July 25.
“This is not just a school issue. This is a community issue,” the superintendent told school-board members during Monday night’s Zoom meeting. “A lot of our quarantines that are coming in prior to school and even now are household exposures as well.”
Picayune’s Highland Community Hospital is one of many in the state facing staffing and bed shortages due to the delta-variant-driven surge in COVID-19 cases.
Board Adopted Limited Mask Requirements
“I understand and I sympathize with everything going on,” school-board member Mark Herrin said during the Zoom meeting Monday night. “… I consider myself a responsible parent, my wife is a responsible parent, and my kids aren’t going to school with masks on.”
The fact that few parents were choosing to send their children to school wearing masks, he said, was evidence that most did not want a mandate. “It just kind of shows me how people feel. That’s just my opinion,” he said.
Herrin motioned to leave a mask “recommendation” in place and not institute a requirement, but the other four board members voted it down.
At one point, board member Christian Burge expressed doubts about the efficacy of masks.
“Although I wear my face masks quite a bit, I’m not convinced that they work, and in order to tell all these kids and adults once again that you’ve got to wear a facemask just seems overboard at this point,” she said.
Numerous studies over the past year found that masks were highly effective at reducing spread of COVID-19. Jerry Frazier, a member of the board who survived a case of COVID-19 last year, argued for masks.
“I spent a good time in the hospital with COVID thinking about what could have happened,” he told the other members Monday night. “But I stayed in contact with the doctor that treated me. And then we heard a plea from the CEO of the Highland Hospital about the various different tools we have to combat this virus right now. … I think we’ve got to do something to help arrest the spread of this. Because if we don’t do something, then we will end up with no school at all.”
Frazier spoke up again as board members debated whether it would be a good idea to only require masks in common areas while allowing students to remove them in the classroom.
“We had this last school year to see what did and didn’t work. And one thing we did is we had kids wearing masks. And whether it worked or not, we know we didn’t have to close schools down during that period. … Right now we don’t have masks as an option and we see that this new variant appears to be more transmissible than the old variant,” he said.
Burge proposed adopting a mask requirement for two weeks, including in classrooms, for any indoor area where students could not socially distance at least 3 feet.
“I think that’s a small price to pay to wear a mask for just a few weeks if you’re having an outbreak at your school, and then we re-evaluate it. If everything’s fine, then the masks go back out the window,” she said.
Despite opposition from Herrin and another member, Jeff Jones, the board voted 3-to-2 to adopt a limited mask requirement for indoor spaces and school buses in areas where 3 feet of social distance is not possible. The board will re-evaluate the requirement during its Aug. 25 meeting.
Elsewhere in the state, other schools are revising policies or switching to virtual learning amid COVID-19 outbreaks. In Calhoun County, Calhoun City High School announced this week that it would go all virtual after outbreaks hit three cohorts, including the football team and its coaching staff. Since late July, several Lamar County schools switched to virtual learning for two weeks. That county’s schools, which began classes earlier than most, had reported outbreaks in 66 cohorts as of Aug. 6.