As coronavirus spikes across Mississippi, school districts choose to close doors

Published 5:06 pm Friday, November 20, 2020

Schools and districts across Mississippi are shutting their doors and transitioning to online learning ahead of the Thanksgiving break as COVID-19 cases sharply spike.

Schools reported record-high COVID-19 infections among students and teachers for the week of Nov. 9, and some educators are concerned that social gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday could prolong the virtual learning period.

Over the five-day period, 1,546 students and teachers across the state tested positive for COVID-19, according to data submitted by schools to the Mississippi Department of Health. The highest number of cases in one week to that point was 899.

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That brings the total number of positive COVID-19 cases in students, teachers and staff to 7,930 since the start of school.

Yazoo County School District transitioned to virtual learning after several schools had multiple cases. Despite the relatively low number of cases district-wide, Superintendent Ken Barron said, a large number of teachers and staff were quarantined, making it impossible to continue in-person learning.

“Two of our schools had about half of their staff listed as close contacts (to positive cases),” said Barron.

The plan is to resume a normal schedule the Monday after Thanksgiving. The district has been operating virtually on Mondays and returning to in-person instruction the remaining four days of the week. At that point, all students and staff at all the schools will have not met in person for more than 20 days, said Barron.

“It should give us a good reset point. But with Thanksgiving, if we start seeing cases and exposures, we may get back to virtual very quick,” said Barron.

Germantown High School and the 7th grade at Madison Middle School in Madison County also transitioned to virtual.

Superintendent Charlotte Seals said the decision was made by following state health guidelines, particularly the guideline that states if three or more individual classes, groups or buildings are experiencing simultaneous outbreaks, transitioning to virtual should be considered.

She said most of the cases were traced back to off-campus activities, and the school district has been preparing for this since the summer using virtual learning practice days.

“Our first practice virtual learning day was in October. All of our schools did that … so for Germantown High, that really helped when they went to distance learning,” she said. “They already knew how it worked, students know how to log in from home, teachers know how to interface through the platform and parents know how to assist.”

Seals said the decision to only transition the 7th grade at Madison Middle School was made because the grades have separate wings in that building and don’t often mingle.

“We have to be flexible and able to pivot. We’re going to do everything we can on a school by school or grade by grade basis because we want to get every day of face-to-face instruction we can get,” she said.

During the week of Oct. 26 through Oct. 30, the Western Line School District reported between 1 and 5 positive cases among students and teachers. A little more than 50 students and staff were placed in quarantine, according to state department of health data. So in early November, the district took “precautionary measures” and shut down all school buildings for a week, said superintendent Lawrence Hudson.

Hudson said the district received a number of close contact reports from teachers.

“You don’t know if they got the virus or not, or (are) spreading it to others,” Hudson said. “So the safest thing for us to do — because we had so many uncertainties of staff or students who may or may not have had it — we shut it down because it gave us time to find out more information for anybody else who had close contact.”

Western Line students returned back to school on a hybrid model on Nov. 9. Now, one week later, the district announced closing Riverside High School due to the principal testing positive. Riverside High is currently the only school conducting virtual-only learning.

Hudson said his administration is doing the best they can to be as transparent as possible with teachers, staff and the community about what’s happening in their schools. Although they don’t notify “everyone every time there’s a positive case,” they directly notify individuals who were in close contact and need to quarantine or those who were in the area of a positive case.

“If you don’t receive a notification in Western Line, you were not in danger. Until the pandemic is under control, these are the circumstances we’re faced with,” he said.

Below are the schools and school districts that have recently transitioned to temporary distance learning.

Greenville Public School District
West Bolivar Consolidated School District
Hollandale School District
Yazoo County School District
Meridian Public Schools
Germantown High School
Madison Middle School – 7th grade
Puckett High School
Brandon High School
Brandon Middle School
Pelahatchie High School
Lafayette Middle School
Lafayette High School
Pearl High School
Union County School District
Oxford Middle School
Biggersville Elementary in Alcorn School District

Article written by Kate Royals and Aallyah Wright,