Biloxi High School is suspending in-person class instruction only two-and-a-half weeks into the fall semester, Principal Teresa Martin announced in a letter to parents today. Already, officials have identified COVID-19 cases among 15 students and quarantined 324 classmates with known exposures at the Harrison County, Miss., school.
“Out of an abundance of caution and an effort to stop this current spread, we have made the decision to switch all BHS students to full distance learning until Tuesday, September 8. This includes suspending all extracurricular activities during this time,” Martin said in the letter, which a parent shared with the Mississippi Free Press. “The purpose of this pause is to allow students to be distanced from one another and stop the current spread within our school community.”
The quarantined students, who must isolate at home for two weeks, account for around 18% of the entire Biloxi High School student body, which included about 1,750 students in the 2019-2020 school year. The students began classes on Aug. 5.
In an earlier letter on Aug. 20, Biloxi Superintendent Marcus Boudreaux urged parents to prevent their children from attending social gatherings outside of school.
“The common theme found during contact tracing has been that the overwhelming majority of positive cases have been traced back to social gatherings that occurred over the weekend,” Boudreaux wrote. “Things such as parties, sleepovers, get togethers, and hanging out with groups of friends. These individuals that are choosing to participate in social gatherings are not only jeopardizing the school experience for themselves—their choice is excluding hundreds of other students from the school setting.”
In her letter today, Martin said that she expects a “seamless” transition. The coastal high schoolers already have Chromebooks, she noted, and will be able to log in during each scheduled class period for live instruction using Google Classroom and Google Meet.
The school says that students without internet access at home must call the school on Tuesday at 228-435-6105.
‘These Are People Who Didn’t Have to Die’
Biloxi High is not the only coastal school that has had to quarantine large numbers of students. On Aug. 11, Gulfport High School quarantined around 100 choir students after a teacher developed COVID-19 symptoms. Earlier today, Gulfport announced that a teacher and an entire class would quarantine after possible coronavirus exposures.
A week ago, Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that, statewide, hundreds of students and teachers had already tested positive for the virus since classes began, and schools statewide had already ordered thousands to quarantine. The State had identified COVID-19 school outbreaks in 71 of Mississippi’s 82 counties at that time.
Last Wednesday, Dobbs announced during a press conference that the state had already lost more than 500 people to COVID-19 in August alone. This month’s toll includes 49-year-old Marion County elementary teacher Brenda Pittman (no relation to this reporter), who died a week before she would’ve begun fall teaching; her husband, 71-year-old Charlie Pittman, died the day after her funeral—leaving their two sons parentless.
“We need to realize that these are people who didn’t have to die. These are people who otherwise would be with us today,” Dobbs said at Wednesday’s presser, referring to the Mississippians who have died this month.
While COVID-19 cases have trended downward some in recent weeks, Dr. Dobbs has said that he expects cases to begin surging once again within the next few weeks.
“We are very pleased to see a decline in daily COVID hospitalizations,” the state’s top epidemiologist said in a tweet on Sunday. “Recommend to physician colleagues—please consider doing elective surgeries that require hospitalization soon. Anticipate rebound COVID hospitalizations in 3-4 weeks secondary to outbreaks in youth now.”
In late July, before schools began reopening, Dobbs called plans to restart in-person instruction “crazy,” but Gov. Tate Reeves insisted that schools could safely reopen.
‘The Choose of Life and Death’
Since then, Reeves has pushed for schools and colleges to continue fall sports programs, too, including football. But in the past week, outbreaks among students and athletics staff has forced schools to quarantine entire football teams and suspend programs, including Jones County’s Northeast Jones High School and Covington County’s Mount Olive High and Seminary High schools. Seminary’s volleyball team is also under a two-week quarantine.
Last week, East Jasper Consolidated School District Superintendent Nadene Arrington said she had made the “heart-wrenching” decision to cancel all fall sports in a preemptive effort to stop COVID-19 spread.
“Some believe that our decision was rash and without just cause; however, I beg to differ,” Arrington said in an Aug. 20 statement. “Who among us wants to be the conveyor or chooser of life and death?”