Ken Spears sits in the driver seat of a bus as he waits for Neshoba County School District students to board on the first day of school on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Beginning Monday, all schools in Smith County School District will shut down for a two-week period due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases and quarantines, a school member said.

The decision by the school board Tuesday comes on the heels of the death of a Raleigh 8th grader over the weekend. Mkayla Robinson died just days after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Board member Jay Arrington said the school board met via phone on Tuesday and voted unanimously to shut down the schools beginning Monday, Aug. 23. The board made the decision to delay the two-week shutdown until Monday so parents had time to make plans and find child care.

Unlike last year, the Mississippi Department of Education is requiring schools to offer in-person learning as the primary mode of instruction this year. Schools also stand to lose out on federal relief funding if they do not operate primarily in person, though schools are allowed to operate virtually for a time in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks or other emergency events.

The district will not be implementing virtual learning because of connectivity issues for many of their students, Arrington said. He estimates only about 25% of students in the rural district have reliable internet access.

The 2,443 student district reported 104 positive cases in students, teachers and staff and nearly 700 people quarantined on Tuesday.

He said several schools, including Mize and Taylorsville which he represents, are struggling with adequate staffing.

“We have a lot of staff that are positive or quarantined, and we cannot operate the schools,” said Arrington.

A request for comment from Superintendent Nick Hillman was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

Several community members gathered at Raleigh High School Sunday morning following Robinson’s death. Among those was Pastor Ronald Wilbon, Robinson’s cousin, who spoke to the crowd. Signs stating “America please shut it down!” were propped up against the front of the school as Wilbon spoke.

Arrington said students will be making up the days during a holiday break or extending the school year.

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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.