The Mississippi Department of Health on Friday released COVID-19 guidelines for K-12 schools for next school year, including recommendations for masks for unvaccinated students, teachers and staff and social distancing of 3 feet when possible.

Dr. Paul Byers, state epidemiologist, last week said the department would be releasing “Mississippi-specific” protocols to go with the school guidelines recently released by the Centers for Disease Control. However, none of the guidelines sent Friday differ from the general CDC recommendations.

Byers also made a presentation to the annual Mississippi Association of School Superintendents conference earlier this week that included suggestions such as requiring exposed, unvaccinated individuals to submit to testing every two days for a seven-day period to avoid quarantine. But that provision was not in the guidelines released Friday.

Mississippi Today requested a copy of the presentation, but Byers, through a spokesperson, said the presentation was “still in draft form,” though he had already presented it to school officials.

Byers said vaccination is “the key forward” for ensuring schools can safely operate in person in the 2021-22 school year.

Only 31% of the population in the state is fully vaccinated. Of that, 6% of children ages 12-15 and 12% of kids ages 16-17 are fully vaccinated, according to the Mississippi Department of Health.

The full list of recommendations are:

  • All eligible students, teachers and staff 12 years and older should receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
  • Masks should be worn indoors in school settings by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. 
  • Schools should maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing by people who are not fully vaccinated, to reduce transmission risk.  
  • Routine screening testing of asymptomatic unvaccinated students, teachers and staff is recommended as an additional measure to prevent further transmission.  
  • Schools should continue to isolate COVID-19 infected students, teachers, and staff and continue contact tracing to identify exposed individuals for quarantine and exclusion from the school setting. 
  • All students, teachers and staff who have symptoms of any infectious illness, regardless of vaccination status, should stay home from school and be evaluated by their healthcare provider. 
  • Fully vaccinated students, teachers and staff: 
    • Do not have to wear a mask when indoors; 
    • Do not have to quarantine or be excluded from the school setting if they have COVID-19 exposure; and 
    • Do not have to be tested unless symptomatic. 

The Mississippi Department of Health has also developed a testing initiative to facilitate onsite screening testing for COVID-19 for unvaccinated asymptomatic students, teachers and staff. The department’s Adopt-a-school Vaccination Program is working to provide COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible children and adults in the school system.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.