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Gov. Reeves ‘Praying’ After 8th Grader’s COVID Death, But Unmoved On Masks In Schools

Gov Tate Reeves stands in front of the state seal speaking to reporters
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said during a Thursday, Aug. 19 press conference that he is "praying" for the family of 13-year-old COVID-19 victim Mkayla Robinson, but again reiterated that he will issue an order mandating masks in schools. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is not relenting in his opposition to issuing an order mandating masks in all public schools statewide even though a 13-year-old girl died of COVID-19 after starting eighth grade in a mask-optional school district.

“When you look at what happened in other states last year that shut down their schools, what I would submit to you is, while there are certain risks with schools open, there are risks with schools not being open,” Reeves said during a press conference Thursday.

“I’m not as governor going to tell every single school and every single school district what they can and cannot do to keep kids safe,” he added.

Last year, though, Gov. Reeves did just that, issuing a mask mandate in all K-12 schools and specific public-health rules that stayed in place throughout the school year. When he announced the 2020 mask requirements, Reeves said it would prove vital to keeping schools open and that “wearing a mask, as irritating as that can be … is critical.”

But this year, Reeves has insisted that he will not involve himself as much in school decisions on COVID-19. Unlike governors in states like Florida and Texas, he is not attempting to bar school districts from issuing their own mask mandates, but the lack of guidance has led to a patchwork system with some chaotic outcomes. 

Dozens of Mississippi schools that started the year without requiring masks have gone all-virtual just days into the semester following outbreaks far larger than anything they saw in August 2020.

‘Does It Happen From Time To Time? Sure It Does.’

During a press conference last Friday, Aug. 13, the governor also insisted that he did not have “any intention” of issuing a mask mandate for schools, claiming risks to children were minor.

Photo of young Black woman MKayla smiling and holding awards. She is thin and grinning widely
Mkayla Robinson died of COVID-related complications on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, her local : newspaper reported. Photo: Raleigh HS Band Facebook page

“If you look at those individuals under the age of 12, what you find is that it is very rare that kids under the age of 12 have anything other than the sniffles,” the governor said. “Does it happen from time to time? Sure it does. I believe we have had one fatality of an individual, maybe it could’ve been two—I think there’s three under the age of 18 at this time? Two?”

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs raised up four fingers, correcting him. “Four so far and one this summer,” he said.

The next morning, on Saturday, Aug. 14, Mkayla Robinson died of COVID-19 not long after developing symptoms and testing positive, bringing the child death toll to five. The Smith County eighthth grader had attended classes at Raleigh Junior High least as recently as Wednesday, Aug. 11. Unlike last year when the governor issued a statewide mask mandate for public places, including schools, Smith County Schools opened this year, on Aug. 6, with masks optional. Amid outbreaks, the school mandated masks on Tuesday, Aug. 10. 

After Robinson’s death, the Smith County School District announced that all of its schools will close beginning next week.

“Due to the increase in COVID-19 cases, all SCSD school facilities will be shutting down starting Monday, August 23, 2021,” a notice on the school’s website reads. “Schools will remain closed until Tuesday, September 7, 2021, following Labor Day weekend. Smith County School District encourages everyone to get the vaccine and stay safe in these trying times.”

‘The Reality Is That We Pray For Them’

While not mentioning the 13-year-old COVID victim by name, Gov. Reeves offered his thoughts on Robinson’s death during Friday’s press conference, but without using her name.

“With respect to the young kid in Smith County, let’s be perfectly honest, every single death in this pandemic is hard to take, it’s hard to deal with, and this particular one with a young lady that has her entire life before her—as someone who is a dad of three young girls, I know how hard this is on her family,” Reeves said yesterday. “And I pray for them every single day. It’s hard for me to even fathom what they are going through. 

“And the reality is that we pray for them and we really hope God looks over not only the family who is certainly struggling but the entire community. If you read the comments by the people who knew her, you can’t help but recognize what a good kid she was, so the whole community is struggling with that and it breaks my heart and the heart of so many Mississippians. And that’s why we’ve got to pray for her.”

Along with the lack of a statewide mask mandate, another difference between school reopenings in August 2020 and now is that the current delta variant is far more transmissible. Halfway through August 2020, Mississippi schools had reported just 199 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students. By mid-August 2021, the number of confirmed infections among students was 5,993. Last fall, schools did not reach that total cumulatively until December.

Masks in Schools ‘Worked Well,’ Says Pediatrician

During an episode of MFP Live on Thursday, American Academy of Pediatrics Mississippi Chapter President Anita Henderson said Gov. Reeves executive order requiring masks in school last year “worked well.”

“We had some schools that had to go hybrid, we had outbreaks here and there, but for the most part our children were able to learn in person. … The masking controversy is really interesting, I don’t quite understand it,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are asking if masks are dangerous for children and if they’re harmful to their development. I’ve talked to a lot of pediatric developmental specialists who all say no, a mask on a child for the school day does not harm their development. What is harmful for children is if they’re having to learn virtually, if they’re behind a screen all day.”

Dr Anita Henderson speaks at a microphone while Mayor Toby Barker and Dr Bryan Batson stand behind her
Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician and the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, warned during a press conference on July 9, 2021, that the COVID-19 delta variant posed dangers to children as schools began to reopen. Photo courtesy City of Hattiesburg

Last year’s evidence doe not support claims that masks can be harmful to children’s health, Henderson said

“Last year, we did not see flu, we did not see (respiratory syncytial virus) last winter, we had very few cases of respiratory illness, pneumonia,” the Hattiesburg Clinic pediatrician said. “In fact, our pediatric clinics were empty last winter. … Masks last winter did not harm children in terms of their health; it actually helped them. 

“Last winter, there was a 40% drop in ER admissions for asthma for children. The masks helped them to not have all those respiratory illnesses.”

Henderson advocated for a “layered” approach to fighting to prevent COVID-19 in children, including masking, social distancing, and for those age 12 or older, vaccination. Just 15% of Mississippians ages 12-to-15 and 20% of Mississippians ages 16-to-17 are now fully vaccinated. Among all residents, that figure is now 37%.

‘You As An Individual Mississippian Can Be Trusted’

Despite not issuing any new restrictions for schools, the governor did tout COVID-19 vaccines, while stressing that he will not require the government to force vaccination.

“Getting the vaccine is your choice. It is your decision. And as your governor, I will always defend your right to make that decision, and I will respect your decision,” Reeves said yesterday.

“As I mentioned the numbers earlier, however, more and more Mississippians are concluding that getting vaccinated is a good choice not only for themselves, but for the people around them,” Reeves continued. “…If you are not vaccinated, there are other choices you should consider to protect your loved ones and protect yourself. As we saw last year, social distancing and masking and avoiding unnecessary indoor crowds have all proven to help and they’re all things you can decide to do on your own.”

Reeves emphasized the concept of personal responsibility over government public-safety requirements.

“I would like to take a moment and talk about that idea of responsibility. I believe you as an individual Mississippian can be trusted to make good and responsible decisions,” the governor said while speaking to the second-least vaccinated state and the current No. 1 global hotspot for COVID-19. “Good practices are a choice. Staying healthy is a choice. Keeping your neighbors and your coworkers healthy is a choice. Now let’s all make the right choices.”

The governor also criticized journalists who he claimed “really want to make political hay and grow their Twitter platforms because I will not issue mandate after mandate after mandate.”

“Let me make clear: I do not give a damn about any political agenda. … There will be plenty of time for politics, but this ain’t it,” the governor said. (Minutes later, though, he would again criticize the idea of expanding Medicaid to an additional 200,000 to 300,000 Mississippians while referring to it as “Obamacare expansion.”)

“There will be plenty of time for politics, but this ain’t it,” the governor continued. “My objective is to give Mississippians the facts … and then trust them to love each other enough to do it.”

Watch, listen or read/search full transcript of State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs explaining on MFP Live how the delta variant spreads, its dangers and specific safety precautions from school assemblies, to flying, to masking.

Follow the Mississippi Free Press on Twitter at @msfreepress for breaking news.

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