Though it’s required by a statewide order and punishable by fine, not all Mississippi schools are reporting information about COVID-19 infections, making it impossible to quantify just how many students and teachers are contracting the virus this school year.
Since the state health department started reporting weekly COVID-19 school data in late August, schools and school districts in at least 15 of the state’s 82 counties have not consistently submitted their infection and quarantine numbers to the health department, a Mississippi Today analysis of the data shows.
There has not been a weekly health department report in which schools in all 82 counties submitted information, making it unclear the total cases within many districts and the true number of infections in all of Mississippi’s schools. This also affects medical experts’ ability to mitigate further spread of the virus, and it could affect future policy decisions like whether to close schools.
An Aug. 14 statewide order issued by the health department mandated both public and private schools submit aggregate data for the preceding week and school year total on a weekly basis. Each school is responsible for designating someone to complete this task.
The number of private schools participating is more difficult to quantify because not all of them are reporting. The Mississippi Department of Health only lists which private schools did report their COVID-19 data.
While many public and private schools have complied with the order, others are not on board yet, said State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs.
“I mean it’s a public health order and by statute it actually has a fine and could even be considered a significant crime (to not report),” Dobbs said at an Oct. 12 press conference. “We want to be more collaborative and make sure that people understand the benefit of it and work to understand the barriers so we can work with them to overcome this.”
MSDH collects data of how COVID-19 is affecting schools by using several different metrics. Schools are asked to supply numbers for the following categories:
- Total teachers, staff and students who have tested positive since the start of school.
- The total number of teachers and staff who tested positive the week the data was reported.
- The total number of students who tested positive the week the data was reported.
- The total number of outbreaks that occurred the week the data was reported. MSDH defines an outbreak as “three or more individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 in the same group within a 14-day period.”
- The total number of outbreaks in a school since school started.
- The total number of teachers and staff quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure for the week that data was reported.
- The total number of students who were quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure for the week that data was reported.
The Mississippi Department of Education provides guidance and instructions to districts, while the Department of Health tracks and reports the data, an MDE spokesperson said.
State Epidemiologist Paul Byers said the state health department created teams to work directly with schools to help facilitate and understand the reporting.
“We have teams in all parts of the state that are designated to work with the schools and we do school outreach,” he said on Oct. 12.
As of Oct. 15, Mississippi Department of Health data shows a total of 3,633 teachers, students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of school.
Erica Webber-Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said she’s received several calls from teachers inquiring about what to do if someone contracts the coronavirus. School districts should “get on the same page” when it comes to reporting the cases and communicating with teachers, she said.
“That is another thing that is alarming to me is that it differs from district to district,” Jones said. “For example, I had a teacher to reach out to me and say, ‘Well should I quarantine for 14 days? I was told no.’ It’s confusing and our educators are already stressed out enough, and it’s just more things to add to their workload.”
Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg-based pediatrician and president-elect of the Mississippi Chapter of Academy of American Pediatrics, said 58 students in the state have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus.
From March 1 to July 25, an analysis from 14 states showed 576 children (18 and younger) were hospitalized, according to data from the CDC. In Mississippi, there’s been one death under the age of four, 11 deaths from the ages 18-24, and one death from multisystem inflammatory syndrome between the ages of 11-20, Henderson said. African-American, Native American, and Hispanic children mortality rates are higher compared to white children, she added.
“The good news is kids in general are not as severely infected in terms of their mortality,” Henderson said. “Numbers in young kids in terms of mortality are low, however we don’t want them to get it at school and take it back to their parents and grandparents, and we also don’t want to put those teachers at risk.”
This is why it is important for schools to report the data so health professionals can provide the resources they need, Henderson said.
“For instance, if there is an outbreak or large number of kids quarantined in a certain school, the health department may come in and help test,” she said. “So they need that information in order to use those resources wisely.”
Henderson continued: “We want those schools and teachers to have the resources they need, but we need data in order to determine what resources they need from us.”