About 15% of all Mississippi K-12 students have now been quarantined since the start of the year either for testing positive for COVID-19 or due to known exposures. That figure, based on new data from the Mississippi State Department of Health, includes 65,525 students who have been ordered to isolate in the weeks since classes began.
The latest report, which includes figures from 835 schools in 75 counties, shows that the state identified 5,763 new cases among students for the week of Aug. 16-20 and ordered 28,990 of them to quarantine for exposure, with both figures up since the prior week.
The total number of student cases identified this month so far reached 11,766 by the end of last week. At the same point in August 2020, schools had confirmed just 533 cases among students. For the entirety of the fall 2020 semester, Mississippi’s schools confirmed just 7,212 cases among students. About 443,000 students are enrolled in Mississippi’s public-school system.
At Least 3,157 School Employees Isolated
Schools have also confirmed 2,383 cases among teachers and other K-12 employees this month so far, including 945 last week. At the same point in 2020, just 364 educators had tested positive for COVID-19. By the end of the fall 2020 semester, that total would reach 3,928.
In addition to positive cases, schools have quarantined at least 3,157 school employees for exposures, bringing the total number of K-12 employee isolations for cases or exposures to 5,540—a figure that represents about 8% of all K-12 faculty and staff in the state.
The figures released yesterday do not include any data for this week. The Mississippi State Department of Health also cautions on its website that the data do not include all schools. In seven counties, no schools are yet reporting.
“Only schools which have reported weekly data to MSDH appear on each week’s report. Some schools may report data late or incompletely,” MSDH says.
It also does not include data from Mississippi’s private schools.
State Reports 704 School Outbreaks, Dozens Close
Last year, Gov. Tate Reeves issued a statewide mask mandate that included all public K-12 schools. This year, the governor, citing individual freedom and responsibility, declined to issue a mask mandate in schools despite the significantly higher transmissibility of the delta variant. While many Mississippi schools returned for fall 2021 with district-level mask mandates, most began classes with face coverings optional, but not required.
Amid the mounting cases and exposures, though, dozens of school districts statewide have reversed course and implemented mask mandates after starting the year without them; dozens of other schools have since temporarily suspended in-person learning and moved to all-virtual classes.
At least one K-12 student has died with COVID-19 this month. Mkayla Robinson, 13, died just over a week after starting 8th grade at Raleigh Junior High School within hours of rapidly developing symptoms and testing positive. She had been in school as recently as three days before her death with no apparent symptoms and no diagnosis yet, sources told the Mississippi Free Press earlier this month.
After her death, the Smith County School District (which includes schools in Raleigh, Taylorsville and Mize) announced that it would go all virtual as the district reported 107 cases and 717 quarantines among students, staff and faculty. Tuesday’s MSDH school report did not include most of those cases and quarantines, reporting only 29 confirmed cases at Raleigh High School and none for the other schools in the district. That district reports totals on its website.
With 704 outbreaks reported to MSDH this month so far, other schools and districts have announced closures this week, too. On Monday, West Point Consolidated School District announced that it was going all virtual due to outbreaks, while the Greenville Public School District announced that it would quarantine Greenville High School’s entire student body due to positive cases.
Gov. Reeves Criticizes ‘Irresponsible Conclusions’
During a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Reeves suggested that the explosion of cases in students may not be related to school exposures.
“I don’t think that you can necessarily make the leap from those individuals testing positive to the transmission occurring in schools,” he said. “Some of it most likely occurred in schools, some of it most likely occurred in the community, and so I think it’s important that we make sure we don’t jump to irresponsible conclusions without having the data to verify that.”
Despite the large numbers of cases and quarantines, some school districts are requiring teachers to use their regular sick-day allowances in the event of exposures or confirmed positive cases. Last week, the Mississippi State Department of Health ordered schools to “exclude all students and faculty diagnosed with COVID-19 from the school setting” during a mandatory 10-day isolation period.
During his press conference yesterday, the governor said that the COVID-19 emergency order he extended gives local government entities the ability to let sick employees isolate without using personal leave time. But local governments and school districts are not required to take advantage of that flexibility, he said.
“Now if you’re a teacher or an employee, the best way for you not to have to be put in a position where you’re trying to be convinced whether you’re going to take personal leave or not is to not get COVID,” Reeves said. “And to be vaccinated certainly reduces your risk. It doesn’t eliminate it, but reduces your risk considerably.”
The Mississippi Association of Educators has repeatedly called on Reeves to issue a statewide mask mandate in schools this year, citing the dangers the delta variant poses to teachers and students alike, but he has continued to rebuff such requests. While not directly calling on Mississippians to get vaccinated, the governor said yesterday that he trusts it. He and his wife, Elee Reeves, are both vaccinated.
“As I have repeatedly done throughout this year, I encourage each and every one of you to consult with your doctor, study the facts and decide what is best for you and your family. I will continue to defend your right to make your own choices about your health care,” Reeves said. That statement led women on social media to point out that Reeves does not support a woman’s or family’s right to choose abortion. Reeves also supports Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s decision to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in a case the nation’s top justices will hear in October.
“That being said, the facts continue to point to the vaccine being safe and effective and the best way to prevent serious illness and death from COVID-19,” the governor said yesterday.
Free Testing Available For K-12 Students, Faculty
During Tuesday’s press conference, State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers noted that MSDH has worked to make free COVID-19 testing available to K-12 students and employees.
“We do have testing available for students and teachers who are exposed. Certainly one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve worked very hard to make sure that testing is available on site to schools,” he said, adding that many county health departments also have testing available.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center, which includes the state’s only pediatric hospital, reported today that it currently has 23 children in its care who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.