Mississippi focuses on paying teachers, other state worker in virus shutdown

Published 8:50 am Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mississippi legislators decided Tuesday to suspend their session because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they first worked to ensure teachers and employees of city and county governments would be paid even if they are told to stay home.

Mississippi reported 21 confirmed cases of the virus as of Tuesday, up from 12 on Monday.

Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said many in Mississippi live paycheck-to-paycheck, and he knows times could be tough as people are asked to isolate themselves from others to curb the spread of the virus.

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“These changes are temporary, but our persistence is permanent,” Hosemann said.

The Capitol attracts thousands of people during many days of a legislative session. Public visits were reduced in recent days, and legislative leaders said they were following the state health officer’s recommendation to suspend the session.

Hosemann and Repblican House Speaker Philip Gunn will decide when lawmakers will return, though it appears unlikely to be before April 1.

“We are asking you to just put a pause button on where we are and just give us a buffer, a break,” Gunn told his colleagues Tuesday in a mostly empty Capitol.

Lawmakers considered a bill that would give city and county governments and school boards the power to pay hourly employees who are not working during a disaster, including the current pandemic.

State law already authorizes Mississippi state government to pay its hourly employees in such circumstances.

The legislation would not affect private businesses, although Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez sought changes to make unemployment payments available to private employees such as restaurant staffers who might go days or weeks without working.

Republican House Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White of West said it was too soon to know what help the federal government might provide private employees.

“This bill is about taking care of what we can take care of,” White said.

The House finished its work Tuesday and left for the break. Senators passed their own hourly pay bill Tuesday but must return Wednesday to pass the House version.

The Mississippi Board of Education will have an online meeting Thursday to consider state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright’s recommendation to suspend state and federal assessment and accountability requirements for this school year.

If schools need to be closed for an extended period, Wright will recommend that the board waive requirements for attendance, promotion and graduation, the state Department of Education said in a news release.

Volunteer groups in Meridian, Tupelo and elsewhere around the state have been handing out free lunches to students who are out of school.

The 21 positive cases of the coronavirus had been found among 389 people tested in Mississippi by Tuesday.

The Mississippi State Department of Health said that by Tuesday, Hinds County had six cases; Leflore County had four; Forrest County had three; Copiah and Pearl River counties had two each; and Hancock, Harrison, Jackson and Monroe counties had one each.

For most people, coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. People with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover, according to the World Health Organization.