Mississippi education leaders are largely planning to continue using their COVID policies from last school year, but some have dropped protections altogether.
Schools have been required to offer in-person learning as their primary method of instruction since the start of last school year. Local school boards are allowed to develop their own specific policies regarding virtual options, but are required to ensure that students receive direct instruction from a teacher for the same number of minutes each day that they would in-person. Any other decisions regarding masking, quarantining, sanitation, and vaccination have been made by districts at the local level for the last year.
The new school year begins as COVID-19 cases are rising in Mississippi, with 1,705 positive cases on July 27 compared to 105 at the beginning of May. While high, they have not yet climbed to the levels seen during the delta and omicron waves. The Mississippi State Department of Health recently announced that families can receive eight rapid tests each month through their county health department.
Policies vary from district to district, but most appear to be relaxing or maintaining relaxed COVID safety protocols for the upcoming school year, which begins for most districts in early August.
Greg Ellis, spokesperson for the Tupelo School District, said the district is generally continuing to follow its 2021-2022 plan but has added cameras in classrooms so that students who are quarantining due to positivity or exposure can continue to participate remotely in instruction. The district’s quarantine policies say they follow CDC and MSDH guidance.
The Greenville School District is also maintaining its 2021-2022 policies, but it requires all students, staff, and visitors to wear masks, as well as temperature checks and socially distanced seating.
By contrast, the Jackson Public School District has dropped its mask mandate and vaccine mandate for employees but will continue contact tracing and sanitation efforts.
“COVID-19 seems to be another sickness we’re just going to have to deal with for the rest of our lives,” said Gulfport Superintendent Glen East. He elaborated that the district will require a doctor’s note to return to school.
The DeSoto County School District is also mostly returning to pre-pandemic norms, including regarding campus events and school lunch prices. Their plan instructs parents to contact the school nurse for instructions regarding the length of quarantine, and the district clarified that absences due to COVID are still excused.
The Lauderdale County and Vicksburg-Warren School Districts have not made any substantial changes to their plans, which do not require masking and say students should quarantine if they are exhibiting symptoms.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said MSDH will no longer be requiring weekly reporting from schools of positive cases or quarantined students as they “transition to more routine, sustainable surveillance.” Generally, the MSDH recommends that masks should be worn when community transmission is high, encourages parents to review Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, and can provide testing and vaccination support to districts.
Dr. Anita Henderson, president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that vaccinations are going to be the most effective way of slowing down transmission and encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated, as well as staff to get boosted if they are eligible. Children ages 6 months and older are also now eligible for vaccines, which can be scheduled through MSDH.
She also encouraged families to pick up at-home tests and double-check before attending group events, visiting immunocompromised family, or if they are showing any cold symptoms.
“We are very concerned, just like when school started back last year and we saw that huge surge of delta in the fall,” Henderson said. “We’re already in the middle of a big omicron surge now, and we’re concerned that it’s going to also happen in schools. We already know that school teachers are out in our area, we know children who have tested positive have missed their first week of school … These are things that are going to continue to happen unless we do everything we can to slow down transmission in schools.”
Mississippi Today intern Allison Santa-Cruz contributed to this reporting.