While the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb, the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools recently released a statement asserting that its member schools should not have to report their infection numbers to the Mississippi State Department of Health.

The MAIS, which represents 120 private schools across the state, challenged the state’s reporting requirements in a statement.

“Unlike state schools, independent schools are not agents of the state. They are small businesses that happen to be in the business of teaching children,” the statement reads. “… MAIS questions the legitimacy and efficacy of the state’s reporting requirements.”

The health department issued an order in August requiring Mississippi K-12 schools, both public and private, to report their COVID-19 data to the department “in order to have awareness of the current impact of COVID-19 in school settings.” This information, which is shared publicly every week, includes the number of students, teachers and staff infected or quarantining, as well as the number of infected individuals since the school year began.

READ MORE: Weekly update: How many students and teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 in your school?

Every week, the health department publishes numbers of positive cases reported in schools, though not all schools report every week as required. Some private schools regularly report those figures. 

But in the statement, the MAIS said reporting how many teachers and students contracted COVID-19 at their schools would be “hearsay.”

Statement from the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools (click to enlarge)

“No other Mississippi businesses are required to report hearsay evidence of ‘positive cases’ to MSDH on a weekly basis,” the statement said.

“Small businesses, including independent schools, have no first-hand knowledge of positive cases that pass through their doors; the best they can do is report what their customers report to them. The only reliable source for tracking ‘positive cases’ is the medical community that performs and reads the test,” the statement said.  

The MAIS statement has caused concern for some Greenwood parents who send their children to Pillow Academy, a private school.

“It seems like their thinking is, ‘Well if somebody has (the coronavirus), then their doctor will report that case.’ But that doesn’t do me any good as a parent,” said a parent of a student at Pillow Academy who wished to remain anonymous over concern that their child would receive negative attention because of this article. 

Pillow Academy has reported its COVID-19 data to MSDH most weeks, but other private schools have not. 

Though other school districts have missed weeks or quietly not reported their numbers, this is the first known instance of a school organization taking a stance against reporting school COVID-19 data to MSDH.

On Oct. 12, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said that schools reporting their coronavirus infection data is “a public health order and by statute it actually has a fine and could even be considered a significant crime (to not report). 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.”

READ MORE: Not all Mississippi schools are reporting COVID-19 results as required.

When asked if MSDH would take any steps to enforce this policy with independent schools that are not reporting, a department spokesperson responded through email that “[MSDH doesn’t] have to take any action. The majority of schools report which enables us to obtain the surveillance we need.”

But to the Pillow Academy parent, the issue of MAIS bucking health department reporting orders goes beyond that one act. 

“I just don’t understand the logic,” the parent said. “Why wouldn’t you set an example of being a concerned citizen to do as much as you can to keep your community safe? People should have enough information to make a decision that’s right for their family.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.