Mississippi governor says his goal to keep schools open despite surging COVID-19 cases

Published 9:17 pm Thursday, August 19, 2021

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday that his goal is to keep as many schools open as possible, even as COVID-19 cases continue to rise sharply in the state, because he does not want children to lose academic advancement.

Reeves, a Republican, said local school districts have the power to offer vaccinations to children 12 and older, with parents’ permission. He said school districts also can set mask mandates or require students to maintain distance from one another to mitigate the spread of the airborne virus.

“While there are certainly risks with schools being open, there are also risks with schools not being open,” Reeves said during a news conference. He said, for example, that calls to mental health hospitals increased last year when schools in some places were online only.

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“For some individuals, those that are the higher achievers, you know they’re probably going to be OK. They’re probably going to be able to overcome that,” Reeves said of schools opting out of in-person classes. “But for those who are going to struggle to make it, anyway, if they spend an entire year out of the classroom, they are never going to make up their loss of academic progress.”

The governor’s comments came the same day that the state’s only only pediatric hospital said it is treating its largest number of COVID-19 cases so far during the pandemic. Children’s of Mississippi is part of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

“Today, Children’s of Mississippi and the University of Mississippi Medical Center reported 28 children with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, the highest number of pediatric COVID-19 patients at the state’s only children’s hospital since the beginning of the pandemic,” the hospital said on Facebook. “Of these hospitalized children, 100% are unvaccinated. This number includes eight children in the ICU, including five who are too young to receive the vaccine.”

The state Board of Education on Thursday voted to allow school districts to use a mix of on-campus and online classes until at least Oct. 31 to try to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus — a decision made in consultation with the state Health Department. Before the school year started, the state Board of Education had said districts should mostly use in-person classes.

Some Mississippi school districts started the academic year in July, and others have started this month.

“We did not anticipate the rapid rise in COVID cases in Mississippi so early in the beginning of the school year,” Paula Vanderford, chief accountability officer for the state Department of Education, told board members Thursday.

More than 20,300 Mississippi students were quarantined the week of Aug. 9-13 because of exposure to COVID-19, according to reports submitted to the Health Department from schools in 74 of the 82 counties. That is about 4.5% of students in public schools.

Mississippi has the highest per capita rate of new COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 case tracker. The tracker shows that as of Wednesday, Mississippi had 118.1 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents. Louisiana is next-highest at 111.9 cases per 100,000, then Florida at 101.8.

The tracker showed that Neshoba County, Mississippi, had the 38th-highest caseload per 100,000 residents among all counties and parishes in the United States. Neshoba County has a population of 28,376, and it has 5,627 cases of COVID-19. That translates to 19,155 cases per 100,000 residents.

Neshoba County also has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Mississippi, according to the state Health Department. About 22% of eligible residents in Neshoba County are fully vaccinated, compared with 36% in Mississippi and 50% in the United States. Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation.

Mississippi has just under 3 million residents. The state Health Department on Thursday reported 4,807 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 401,201 cases since the pandemic started. Mississippi has had 7,937 coronavirus-related deaths during the pandemic.